There comes a time when a man realizes that nothing is truth and absolute except God, the merciful. When there is no sky above, no earth beneath, and no hands left to cradle. All alone, left to shambles, in a ruthless mare’s nest. With all the certainty, this time comes in every person’s life, but alas! when this realization strikes most people tend to run over it, dump it to unseen, so they can escape this blue truth of life. Intoxicated with the pleasures of this ephemeral world.
In such a state of nothingness, on a dusty and weary shelf, I caught hold of an old book co-edited by my grandfather. Flying through the first few pages, I came across a supplication by Hazrat Mulla Moin Kashifi (R.a), which is often recited in mosques and Khanaqah’s of Kashmir. I knew a few lines but to recite it in its totality was a blessing. Specially, coming to know…
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John Forbes Nash
Born: 13 June 1928 in Bluefield, West Virginia, USA
Died: 23 May 2015 in New Jersey, USA
John F Nash’s father, also called John Forbes Nash so we shall refer to him as John Nash Senior, was a native of Texas. John Nash Senior was born in 1892 and had an unhappy childhood from which he escaped when he studied electrical engineering at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical. After military service in France during World War I, John Nash Senior lectured on electrical engineering for a year at the University of Texas before joining the Appalachian Power Company in Bluefield, West Virginia. John F Nash’s mother, Margaret Virginia Martin, was known as Virginia. She had a university education, studying languages at the Martha Washington College and then at West Virginia University. She was a school teacher for ten years before meeting John Nash Senior, and the two were married on 6 September 1924.
Johnny Nash, as he was called by his family, was born in Bluefield Sanitarium and baptised into the Episcopal Church. He was :-
… a singular little boy, solitary and introverted …
but he was brought up in a loving family surrounded by close relations who showed him much affection. After a couple of years Johnny had a sister when Martha was born. He seems to have shown a lot of interest in books when he was young but little interest in playing with other children. It was not because of lack of children that Johnny behaved in this way, for Martha and her cousins played the usual childhood games: cutting patterns out of books, playing hide-and-seek in the attic, playing football. However while the others played together Johnny played by himself with toy airplanes and matchbox cars.
His mother responded by enthusiastically encouraging Johnny’s education, both by seeing that he got good schooling and also by teaching him herself. Johnny’s father responded by treating him like an adult, giving him science books when other parents might give their children colouring books.
Johnny’s teachers at school certainly did not recognise his genius, and it would appear that he gave them little reason to realise that he had extraordinary talents. They were more conscious of his lack of social skills and, because of this, labelled him as backward. Although it is easy to be wise after the event, it now would appear that he was extremely bored at school. By the time he was about twelve years old he was showing great interest in carrying out scientific experiments in his room at home. It is fairly clear that he learnt more at home than he did at school.
Martha seems to have been a remarkably normal child while Johnny seemed different from other children. She wrote later in life (see ):-
Johnny was always different. [My parents] knew he was different. And they knew he was bright. He always wanted to do things his way. Mother insisted I do things for him, that I include him in my friendships. … but I wasn’t too keen on showing off my somewhat odd brother.
His parents encouraged him to take part in social activities and he did not refuse, but sports, dances, visits to relatives and similar events he treated as tedious distractions from his books and experiments.
Nash first showed an interest in mathematics when he was about 14 years old. Quite how he came to read E T Bell’s Men of Mathematics is unclear but certainly this book inspired him. He tried, and succeeded, in proving for himself results due to Fermat which Bell stated in his book. The excitement that Nash found here was in contrast to the mathematics that he studied at school which failed to interest him.
He entered Bluefield College in 1941 and there he took mathematics courses as well as science courses, in particular studying chemistry, which was a favourite topic. He began to show abilities in mathematics, particularly in problem solving, but still with hardly any friends and behaving in a somewhat eccentric manner, this only added to his fellow pupils view of him as peculiar. He did not consider a career in mathematics at this time, however, which is not surprising since it was an unusual profession. Rather he assumed that he would study electrical engineering and follow his father but he continued to conduct his own chemistry experiments and was involved in making explosives which led to the death of one of his fellow pupils. :-
Boredom and simmering adolescent aggression led him to play pranks, occasionally ones with a nasty edge.
He caricatured classmates he disliked with weird cartoons, enjoyed torturing animals, and once tried to get his sister to sit in a chair he had wired up with batteries.
Nash won a scholarship in the George Westinghouse Competition and was accepted by the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University) which he entered in June 1945 with the intention of taking a degree in chemical engineering. Soon, however, his growing interest in mathematics had him take courses on tensor calculus and relativity. There he came in contact with John Synge who had recently been appointed as Head of the Mathematics Department and taught the relativity course. Synge and the other mathematics professors quickly recognised Nash’s remarkable mathematical talents and persuaded him to become a mathematics specialist. They realised that he had the talent to become a professional mathematician and strongly encouraged him.
Nash quickly aspired to great things in mathematics. He took the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition twice but, although he did well, he did not make the top five. It was a failure in Nash’s eyes and one which he took badly. The Putnam Mathematics Competition was not the only thing going badly for Nash. Although his mathematics professors heaped praise on him, his fellow students found him a very strange person. Physically he was strong and this saved him from being bullied, but his fellow students took delight in making fun of Nash who they saw as an awkward immature person displaying childish tantrums. One of his fellow students wrote:-
He was a country boy unsophisticated even by our standards. He behaved oddly, playing a single chord on a piano over and over, leaving a melting ice cream cone melting on top of his cast-off clothing, walking on his roommate’s sleeping body to turn off the light.
He was extremely lonely.
And a third fellow student wrote:-
We tormented poor John. We were very unkind. We were obnoxious. We sensed he had a mental problem.
He showed homosexual tendencies, climbing into bed with the other boys who reacted by making fun of the fact that he was attracted to boys and humiliated him. They played cruel pranks on him and he reacted by asking his fellow students to challenge him with mathematics problems. He ended up doing the homework of many of the students.
Nash received a BA and an MA in mathematics in 1948. By this time he had been accepted into the mathematics programme at Harvard, Princeton, Chicago and Michigan. He felt that Harvard was the leading university and so he wanted to go there, but on the other hand their offer to him was less generous than that of Princeton. Nash felt that Princeton were keen that he went there while he felt that his lack of success in the Putnam Mathematics Competition meant that Harvard were less enthusiastic. He took a while to make his decision, while he was encouraged by Synge and his other professors to accept Princeton. When Lefschetz offered him the most prestigious Fellowship that Princeton had, Nash made his decision to study there.
In September 1948 Nash entered Princeton where he showed an interest in a broad range of pure mathematics: topology, algebraic geometry, game theory and logic were among his interests but he seems to have avoided attending lectures. Usually those who decide not to learn through lectures turn to books but this appears not to be so for Nash, who decided not to learn mathematics “second-hand” but rather to develop topics himself. In many ways this approach was successful for it did contribute to him developing into one of the most original of mathematicians who would attack a problem in a totally novel way.
In 1949, while studying for his doctorate, he wrote a paper which 45 years later was to win a Nobel prize for economics. During this period Nash established the mathematical principles of game theory. P Ordeshook wrote:-
The concept of a Nash equilibrium n-tuple is perhaps the most important idea in noncooperative game theory. … Whether we are analysing candidates’ election strategies, the causes of war, agenda manipulation in legislatures, or the actions of interest groups, predictions about events reduce to a search for and description of equilibria. Put simply, equilibrium strategies are the things that we predict about people.
Milnor, who was a fellow student, describes Nash during his years at Princeton in :-
He was always full of mathematical ideas, not only on game theory, but in geometry and topology as well. However, my most vivid memory of this time is of the many games which were played in the common room. I was introduced to Go and Kriegspiel, and also to an ingenious topological game which we called Nash in honor of the inventor.
In fact the game “Nash” was almost identical to Hex which had been invented independently by Piet Hein in Denmark.
Here are three comments from fellow students:-
Nash was out of the ordinary. If he was in a room with twenty people, and they were talking, if you asked an observer who struck you as odd it would have been Nash. It was not anything he consciously did. It was his bearing. His aloofness.
Nash was totally spooky. He wouldn’t look at you. he’d take a lot of time answering a question. If he thought the question was foolish he wouldn’t answer at all. He had no affect. It was a mixture of pride and something else. He was so isolated but there really was underneath it all a warmth and appreciation of people.
A lot of us would discount what Nash said. … I wouldn’t want to listen. You didn’t feel comfortable with the person.
He had ideas and was very sure they were important. He went to see Einstein not long after he arrived in Princeton and told him about an idea he had regarding gravity. After explaining complicated mathematics to Einstein for about an hour, Einstein advised him to go and learn more physics. Apparently a physicist did publish a similar idea some years later.
In 1950 Nash received his doctorate from Princeton with a thesis entitled Non-cooperative Games. In the summer of that year he worked for the RAND Corporation where his work on game theory made him a leading expert on the Cold War conflict which dominated RAND’s work. He worked there from time to time over the next few years as the Corporation tried to apply game theory to military and diplomatic strategy. Back at Princeton in the autumn of 1950 he began to work seriously on pure mathematical problems. It might seem that someone who had just introduced ideas which would, one day, be considered worthy of a Nobel Prize would have no problems finding an academic post. However, Nash’s work was not seen at the time to be of outstanding importance and he saw that he needed to make his mark in other ways. We should also note that it was not really a move towards pure mathematics for he had always considered himself a pure mathematician. He had already obtained results on manifolds and algebraic varieties before writing his thesis on game theory. His famous theorem, that any compact real manifold is diffeomorphic to a component of a real-algebraic variety, was thought of by Nash as a possible result to fall back on if his work on game theory was not considered suitable for a doctoral thesis. He said in a recent interview:-
I developed a very good idea in pure mathematics. I got what became Real Algebraic Manifolds. I could have published that earlier, but it wasn’t rushed to publication. I took some time in writing it up. Somebody suggested that I was a prodigy. Another time it was suggested that I should be called “bug brains”, because I had ideas, but they were sort of buggy or not perfectly sound. So that might have been an anticipation of mental problems. I mean, taking it at face value.
In 1952 Nash published Real Algebraic Manifolds in the Annals of Mathematics. The most important result in this paper is that two real algebraic manifolds are equivalent if and only if they are analytically homeomorphic. Although publication of this paper on manifolds established him as a leading mathematician, not everyone at Princeton was prepared to see him join the Faculty there. This was nothing to do with his mathematical ability which everyone accepted as outstanding, but rather some mathematicians such as Artin felt that they could not have Nash as a colleague due to his aggressive personality.
Halmos received the following letter in early 1953 from Warren Ambrose relating to Nash (see for example ):-
There’s no significant news from here, as always. Martin is appointing John Nash to an Assistant Professorship (not the Nash at Illinois, the one out of Princeton by Steenrod) and I’m pretty annoyed at that. Nash is a childish bright guy who wants to be “basically original,” which I suppose is fine for those who have some basic originality in them. He also makes a damned fool of himself in various ways contrary to this philosophy. He recently heard of the unsolved problem about imbedding a Riemannian manifold isometrically in Euclidean space, felt that this was his sort of thing, provided the problem were sufficiently worthwhile to justify his efforts; so he proceeded to write to everyone in the math society to check on that, was told that it probably was, and proceeded to announce that he had solved it, modulo details, and told Mackey he would like to talk about it at the Harvard colloquium. Meanwhile he went to Levinson to inquire about a differential equation that intervened and Levinson says it is a system of partial differential equations and if he could only [get] to the essentially simpler analog of a single ordinary differential equation it would be a damned good paper – and Nash had only the vaguest notions about the whole thing. So it is generally conceded he is getting nowhere and making an even bigger ass of himself than he has been previously supposed by those with less insight than myself. But we’ve got him and saved ourselves the possibility of having gotten a real mathematician. He’s a bright guy but conceited as Hell, childish as Wiener, hasty as X, obstreperous as Y, for arbitrary X and Y.
Ambrose, the author of this letter, and Nash had rubbed each other the wrong way for a while. They had played silly pranks on each other and Ambrose seems not to have been able to ignore Nash’s digs in the way others had learned to do. It had been Ambrose who had said to Nash:-
If you’re so good, why don’t you solve the embedding theorem for manifolds.
From 1952 Nash had taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but his teaching was unusual (and unpopular with students) and his examining methods were highly unorthodox. His research on the theory of real algebraic varieties, Riemannian geometry, parabolic and elliptic equations was, however, extremely deep and significant in the development of all these topics. His paper C1 isometric imbeddings was published in 1954 and Chern, in a review, noted that it:-
… contains some surprising results on the C1-isometric imbedding into an Euclidean space of a Riemannian manifold with a positive definite C0-metric.
Nash continued to develop this work in the paper The imbedding problem for Riemannian manifolds published in 1956. This paper contains his famous deep implicit function theorem. After this Nash worked on ideas that would appear in his paper Continuity of solutions of parabolic and elliptic equations which was published in the American Journal of Mathematics in 1958. Nash, however, was very disappointed when he discovered that E De Giorgi had proved similar results by completely different methods.
The outstanding results which Nash had obtained in the course of a few years put him into contention for a 1958 Fields’ Medal but since his work on parabolic and elliptic equations was still unpublished when the Committee made their decisions he did not make it. One imagines that the Committee would have expected him to be a leading contender, perhaps even a virtual certainty, for a 1962 Fields’ Medal but mental illness destroyed his career long before those decisions were made.
During his time at MIT Nash began to have personal problems with his life which were in addition to the social difficulties he had always suffered. Colleagues said:-
Nash was always forming intense friendships with men that had a romantic quality. He was very adolescent, always with the boys. He was very experimental – mostly he just kissed.
He met Eleanor Stier and they had a son, John David Stier, who was born on 19 June 1953. Eleanor was a shy girl, lacking confidence, a little afraid of men, did not want to be involved. She found in Nash someone who was even less experienced than she was and found that attractive. :-
Nash was looking for emotional partners who were more interested in giving than receiving, and Eleanor, was very much that sort.
Nash did not want to marry Eleanor although she tried hard to persuade him. In the summer of 1954, while working for RAND, Nash was arrested in a police operation to trap homosexuals. He was dismissed from RAND.
One of Nash’s students at MIT, Alicia Larde, became friendly with him and by the summer of 1955 they were seeing each other regularly. He also had a special friendship with a male graduate student at this time: Jack Bricker. Eleanor found out about Alicia in the spring of 1956 when she came to Nash’s house and found him in bed with Alicia. Nash said to a friend:-
My perfect little world is ruined, my perfect little world is ruined.
Alicia did not seem too upset at discovering that Nash had a child with Eleanor and deduced that since the affair had been going on for three years, Nash was probably not serious about her. In 1956 Nash’s parents found out about his continuing affair with Eleanor and about his son John David Stier. The shock may have contributed to the death of Nash’s father soon after, but even if it did not Nash may have blamed himself. In February of 1957 Nash married Alicia; by the autumn of 1958 she was pregnant but, a couple of months later near the end of 1958, Nash’s mental state became very disturbed.
At a New Year’s Party Nash appeared at midnight dressed only with a nappy and a sash with “1959” written on it. He spent most of the evening curled up, like the baby he was dressed as, on his wife’s lap. Some described his behaviour as stranger than usual. On 4 January he was back at the university and started to teach his game theory course. His opening comments to the class were:-
The question occurs to me. Why are you here?
One student immediately dropped the course! Nash asked a graduate student to take over his course and vanished for a couple of weeks. When he returned he walked into the common room with a copy of the New York Times saying that it contained encrypted messages from outer space that were meant only for him. For a few days people thought he was playing an elaborate private joke.
Norbert Wiener was one of the first to recognize that Nash’s extreme eccentricities and personality problems were actually symptoms of a medical disorder. After months of bizarre behaviour, Alicia had her husband involuntarily hospitalised at McLean Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital outside of Boston. Upon his release, Nash abruptly resigned from MIT, withdrew his pension, and went to Europe, where he intended to renounce his US citizenship. Alicia left her newborn son with her mother, and followed the ill Nash. She then had Nash deported – back to the United States.
After their return, the two settled in Princeton where Alicia took a job. Nash’s illness continued, transforming him into a frightening figure. He spent most of his time hanging around on the Princeton campus, talking about himself in the third person as Johann von Nassau, writing nonsensical postcards and making phone calls to former colleagues. They stoically listened to his endless discussions of numerology and world political affairs. Her husband’s worsening condition depressed Alicia more and more.
In January 1961 the despondent Alicia, John’s mother, and his sister Martha made the difficult decision to commit him to Trenton State Hospital in New Jersey where he endured insulin-coma therapy, an aggressive and risky treatment, five days a week for a month and a half. A long sad episode followed which included periods of hospital treatment, temporary recovery, then further treatment. Alicia divorced Nash in 1962. Nash spent a while with Eleanor and John David. In 1970 Alicia tried to help him taking him in as a boarder, but he appeared to be lost to the world, removed from ordinary society, although he spent much of his time in the Mathematics Department at Princeton. The book  is highly recommended for its moving account of Nash’s mental sufferings.
Slowly over many years Nash recovered. He delivered a paper at the tenth World Congress of Psychiatry in 1996 describing his illness; it is reported in . He was described in 1958 as the:-
… most promising young mathematician in the world …
but he soon began to feel that:-
… the staff at my university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and later all of Boston were behaving strangely towards me. … I started to see crypto-communists everywhere … I started to think I was a man of great religious importance, and to hear voices all the time. I began to hear something like telephone calls in my head, from people opposed to my ideas. …The delirium was like a dream from which I seemed never to awake.
Despite spending periods in hospital because of his mental condition, his mathematical work continued to have success after success. He said:-
I would not dare to say that there is a direct relation between mathematics and madness, but there is no doubt that great mathematicians suffer from maniacal characteristics, delirium and symptoms of schizophrenia.
In the 1990s Nash made a recovery from the schizophrenia from which he had suffered since 1959. His ability to produce mathematics of the highest quality did not totally leave him. He said:-
I would not treat myself as recovered if I could not produce good things in my work.
Nash was awarded (jointly with Harsanyi and Selten) the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economic Science for his work on game theory. In 1999 he was awarded the Leroy P Steele Prize by the American Mathematical Society:-
… for a seminal contribution to research.
Nash and Louis Nirenberg were awarded the Abel prize in 2015 for:
… striking and seminal contributions to the theory of nonlinear partial differential equations and its applications to geometric analysis.
A few days after picking up the prize in Norway, Nash and his wife Alicia were killed in an accident to their taxi on the New Jersey turnpike.
Article by: J J O’Connor and E F Robertson
Click on this link to see a list of the Glossary entries for this page
List of References (10 books/articles)
Some Quotations (2)
Mathematicians born in the same country
Additional Material in MacTutor
Raoul Bott on John Nash
Honours awarded to John F Nash
(Click below for those honoured in this way)
Nobel Prize 1994
AMS Steele Prize 1999
Abel Prize 2015
Popular biographies list Number 25
Other Web sites
Nobel prize winners
Nobel prizes site (An autobiography of Nash and his Nobel prize presentation speech)
Nash’s home page
AMS [registration required]
Mathematical Genealogy Project
The paper seeks reexamination of the received critical heritage about Wittgenstein that treats him as a positivist or unquestionably derives inspiration for positivism from him or sees him as a philosopher of language instead of the translinguistic unrepresentable transcendence. It also questions the influential reading of Wittgenstein scholars who argue that he supports only foundationless view of religion and language game is best metaphor for characterizing his religious views. I argue for the centrality of the mystical or transcendence in understanding the whole corpus of Wittgenstein, especially the Tractatus and his ethics. Questioning the approach that writes off a few scattered mystical utterances here and there in Wittgenstein the paper, building on Russell Neili’s arguments, argues for shift in the paradigm of approaching Wittgenstein by keeping subservient the “positivist” in him and foreground the broader head of mystic in him. A proper understanding of mysticism is all that we need to have in order to appreciate the mystic Wittgenstein’s transcendence of logic and language in both life and thought and foreground him as a philosopher of transcendence and not merely a philosopher of language. Mysticism is the key to Wittgenstein though most Wittgenstein scholars have failed to put in proper perspective the primacy of the mystical and ignored this vital element that alone explains certain ambiguities and difficulties in traditional Wittgenstein exegeses. Far from being antimetaphysical positivist Wittgenstein is to be read as a mystic in the tradition of great mystical thinkers and can be compared with Simone Weil and other significant mystical thinkers of the recent past. His dialectic of transcendence has significant resemblances with transtheistic mystical philosophies such as that of Buddhism and Taoism. Arguing for continuity of his religious views from Tractatus onwards, the paper seeks to rectify problems resulting from emphasizing later Wittgenstein for deriving a philosophy of religion that has been perpetuating noncognitivist, fideist interpretations of him while failing to properly place ethical and aesthetic in his fundamentally mystical approach to religion and culture.
Wittgenstein’s philosophical reflections are in large part, however indirectly, readings between the lines of the story of the soul in the Western metaphysical tradition.
Fergusson Kerr in Theology after Wittgenstein p.166
I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.
My thoughts are one hundred percent Hebraic.
Linguistic Representations and Dialogue with the Mystical
What do linguistic representations aim at? Mirroring reality? Or they constitute an autonomous play that gives us no insights into the most important foundation for culture? The dream or motivation has often been access to reality however imperfect that may be. Strangely there now seems to be increasing consensus over the thesis that language and reality are two different things and the latter is either opaque for the former or far too rich a thing to be captured in the net of the former. From Nagarjuna to Wittgenstein and Derrida many thinkers have denied language and thought access to reality. The question is what do mystics say about this problem? Could the path ahead for philosophers dealing with linguistic representations be opening for a cross disciplinary study with mystical philosophers or philosophers of mysticism? My contention in this paper is that it should be so. Particularly focusing on Wittgenstein it is argued that the royal road to reality is not through language and thought but modes of perception that bypass them. The most important point is that what matters at the end of the day is ethics and answer to fundamental existential questions, the problems that Culture and Value embodies and for these questions we need to explore other languages than the one ordinarily known. This language is the language of the Self. Wittgenstein fundamentally preoccupied himself with this problem though this concern has been largely sidelined by Wittgenstein scholars and those working on philosophy of language. The present paper pleads for a dialogue with this ignored Wittgenstein to contemplate the possibility for breaking fresh ground in tackling the nagging problems in the debate on language and reality.
There is hardly any difference in early and late Wittgenstein’s on the question of the mystical and the ethical. He remained Tractarian till the end in his mystical viewpoint. He did abandon parts of the Tractatus later but there was no evolution – and in fact could not by the very logic of mystical experience that converts its subjects for good. The mystics solve – for themselves at least – all important problems – intellectual and existential. In fact experiencing God dissolves all problems. For logical positivists what mattered most was what is in Tractatus but for Wittgenstein himself what mattered most was what was not in there, the unsaid part. That was not in the Tractatus because language could not handle that. That something is neither linguistic nor representable in any other way. However that shows itself and thus need not be spoken of or represented. Wittgenstein’s most decisive move was thus away from linguistic representations and the most important job for the philosopher was to delimit what can be represented and thus related to what only shows itself. Ethics and aesthetics and the mystical all belong to this second category. Man does not live by bread of facts (science, instrumental rationality) alone but needs supernatural manna embodied in ethical/aesthetical/mystical. It is ironic that what mattered most to him has not been given due attention by his successors. All his endeavor was to save the intelligence from the bewitchment of language. He was all for transcendence so that man becomes himself and lives truly, joyfully. In his search for happy life, life lived sub species aeternatatis he paid great attention to working of language, how language fails to represent reality and leads us astray by creating problems that are not there. It is how men lived that interested him rather than their speculative exercises. This alone solves the riddles of life. Language has no answers and answers can only be found when we step outside language.
As Wittgenstein was more interested in what cannot be linguistically represented his conclusions are radical. The most important things can’t be talked about. Ethics, religion and aesthetics are transcendental. The very fact that things exist is mystical or linguistically and conceptually unrepresentable. We can only gaze at it and get lost in wonder. We can dissolve into this primordial mystery, love and celebrate it. Wittgenstein lived almost like a saint. He is the most mystical of the greatest philosophers of the modern Western history. He tried to show exit to philosophy. He found no problems once we let intelligence operate naturally and it shatters linguistic cobwebs. He fought against pervasive bewitchment of intelligence by language.
However he also realized all pervasiveness of language and how it constructs the world for us. It hardly needs to be argued that we have nothing but linguistic representations even when we seek to talk about transcendence. Man, as has been observed in the classical ages, is a speaking animal. Language is a house of Being. In language the divine and the human meet. Prophets and saints too have spoken. Even the Buddha, the Prophet of silence, spoke even if it is about the impossibility of speech in matters transcendental. Man is condemned to speak and even speak to God and receive the speech of God in turn as scriptures narrate. Scriptures are all filled with linguistic representations of that which though ideally resists getting represented nevertheless is largely accessible though not quite adequately through language. Masses don’t know silence and even saints can’t afford it for too long. Man lives in dialogue, I and Thou dialogue. The absolute stillness is superhuman and for most humans synonymous with death. It is not given for man to conceptually know Truth or represent the divine. But nevertheless he has no other window to higher worlds. Language though imperfect is normally indispensable for humans. Later Wittgenstein is all about appreciating how divine suffuses and expresses in religious language, how ordinary use of language is steeped in transcendental world.
We must not confuse two senses of the term transcendental in Witttgenstein. Logic too is transcendental and we can only show rather than speak about/represent the correspondence between two pictures. To ‘say’ the correspondence between language and reality would require an intermediate language which in turn will require the same ad infinitum., but then that language would also require the same. This kind of transcendence has logical or intellectual function only and did interest Wittgenstein but what mattered for him both personally and as a philosopher is transcendence in ethical/aesthetic/mystical experiences, in the primordial encounter with the world and finding that things exist. The present paper is about this transcendence. As there can be no propositions about what is not in the world or is transcendental we shall have to focus more on life and experiences of the transcendent than on analysis of some theses regarding language or language games to make our point.
Wittgenstein’s protests against being misunderstood notwithstanding, a great industry propounding a version of him he would strongly resent, has been flourishing. What he considered more important has been relegated to background. There is great agreement between scholars on almost everything except that mattered most to him. His motive for doing philosophy and living philosophy have been absent amongst his admirers, not to speak of detractors. His life has not been taken seriously as an aid in clarifying his basic theses and commitments. He has been read as philosopher of language though for him transcendence is more central for culture and value realization.
The mystical in Wittgenstein has not been duly noticed and if noticed not quite well understood. His religious thought has been misunderstood and not read in continuation with his fundamentally mystical outlook. All kinds of theories have been put forward for accounting for his scattered mystical statements and observations on religion. The mystical is central for Wittgenstein and his philosophy and he has stated it in his Tractatus, Notebooks,“Lecture on Ethics” and in fact most of his writings develop this theme in novel ways, in so subtle a manner that few can notice. His attitude towards religion, often understood in connection with the thesis of language game, is to be put in proper context by foregrounding the empirical mystical foundation that he gives to religion. Wittgenstein scholars have not generally succeeded in integrating his mysticism with his view of religion, culture and aesthetics. Mysticism is in the background of many a theses of later Wittgenstein as well and not just the Tractatus. Even Philosophical Investigations’ central arguments that foreground illusoriness of the self, critique mentalistic picture of the soul, dissolve subject object duality and plunge headlong into the world which is all there us, alert us of dangers in asserting or making propositions on anything that transcends language.
Wittgenstein deserves a comparison with great mystical thinkers. If we understand that God is what is and is missed when we attempt to think or imagine or make images of Him or attempt to comprehend the Mystery we can understand Wittgenstein. According to mysticism God is the case. The only thing is we don’t see. We verbalize and babble and create theologies and metaphysics. Wittgenstein is a metaphysician in the same way Buddha is or Krishnamurti is. God is above speech. The Absolute has never been defiled by speech. But by metaphysics is here meant living or breathing the noumenal world, dissolving into it and not speculating about it with conceptual schemes. Metaphysics as the knowledge of the supraphenomenal reality is the soul of all traditional cultures or “epistemologies.” Man is made for the Absolute, to die in It and thus to eternally live. Certainty is the requirement of intelligence and man is not absurdity. If man fails to access the most certain, the indubitable, the absolutely safe in Wittgenstein’s terms, he has failed as a man. God is the greatest certainty – the greatest and most palpable of the present facts in Whitehead’s words –and a philosophy or epistemology that doesn’t account for this does not deserve to be called a philosophy. It is failure and betrayal of philosophy and of man and his intelligence if the real is not knowable though of course not conceptually knowable. Modern philosophy that is largely ignorant of God can’t qualify as a genuine philosophy, as Indians or great traditional philosophers from other traditions understood philosophy as darsana, as seeing or vision.
Wittgenstein had mystic experiences of both the ecstatic and nature-mystical kind. Seeing creation as wondrous is what Einstein correctly defined as religious or mystical attitude. God is attention without distraction as Simone Weil would say. He is the Mystery at the heart of everything. For Wittgenstein God is approached in all these ways and doubting our experience of wonder, of mystery, of eternity, of the ethical or unconditional goodness or his urge for it is absurd. Indeed God is the case and only the fools say in their hearts there is no God. Nasr has remarked that if it were possible to teach (traditional) metaphysics to everyone there would be no atheists around. Modern man has failed to understand what traditions meant by God. God is Reality for traditions and it is absurd to ask is there a reality. Only mystics can, however, say this so genuinely and Wittgenstein is a mystics. As ethics or aesthetics is transcendental and yet quite human and real concerns and constitute the grounds of all that we value most so is religion understood as living/talking God (to be distinguished from talking about God or mere propsitional belief statement) so characteristic of human endowment that it is absurd to question it. In fact, as the Quran says, no question or doubt can be entertained regarding God. God is love, superabundant joy, beauty that kills, sweetness of every sweat thing, green in the leaves and red in the golden rays and mystery that surrounds us.
This is not pantheism which is a heresy for traditions but our experience of God out of the world, so to speak, -and of course we also need to note that samsara is nirvana and this very garden is the Garden of Eden for the seeing or who know. Debating about God is height of folly like debating about pleasures of love by enunchs. Against this folly Wittgenstein asserted what normal men have always taken to be the case that God is reality or Reality and only saints truly live life. Wittgenstein was a saint though not of the order of great Western saints like Eckhart. Saints don’t talk about God but talk God, live God, breathe God and share the great joy that God is with lesser mortals. The real question for traditional philosophies is how we become Godlike (theosis) or prepare for death in life (which is the same thing or means for it) or live and move and have our being in God. All else is vanity.
Wittgenstein stood for this primordial heritage of man and that is why was misunderstood by most of his friends and foes like. Needless to remark that he didn’t consider Western civilization that refused to fully countenance the reality of the sacred as something of a monstrosity and like Gandhi a laughable “interesting” idea He complained of Russell, the paragon of modern rationality or philosophy – to have fatally misunderstood him. In fact what he considered most important has been dismissed by many a modern thinker as folly. God (understood mystically or more precisely metaphysically) is the meaning of life for all religions including transtheistic one as for Wittgenstein. I wish to argue the point that Wittgenstein is to be read alongside great traditional philosophers that saw the Good above everything, had little use for fashionable pursuits of today, considered ethics as first philosophy and metaphysical discoveries as fruits or realizations of real ethical life, were centred on God rather than man and saw quintessentially human in living up to the divine image in him, in transcending himself. There is nothing new or original in Wittgenstein’s mysticism as in fact there can’t be anything new in matters transcendental. One can refer to many mystics while explicating central statements of him. So far we have read – with few exceptions– Wittgenstein as a philosopher or failed to appreciate how mysticism informs/grounds his philosophy.
Wittgenstein is not only a philosopher of mysticism but a mystic, a practical mystic of great standing. All his work was dedicated to the “glory of God” as he once said to his friend Dury (Rhees, 1984: 168) – an expression quite unexpected from modern profane philosophers. He didn’t like philosophizing as a speculative/analytical exercise, as an academic pursuit as is the case now in modern academies or universities but something that Plato would appreciate or other ancient traditional philosophers would prescribe as a way of life and nothing short of preparation of death. That he wanted his legacy to c of changed attitude towards ethics is hardly surprising. “I am by no means sure that I should prefer a continuation of my work by others to a change in the way people live which would make all those questions superfluous.”(Wittgenstein, CV: 61). Philosophy, as pursued by his contemporaries or today, is a disease of modern form of life that needs cure. And that cure is ultimately provided by seeing the futility of the game called philosophy.
For ancients it was ethics and a vision and had little to do with language or concepts. It was, most probably, his deep conviction borne from experience regarding sacrality of the world and thus the truth of the supernatural/eternal that made him loath modern civilization that had banished the sacred. It is in light of mysticism that we can understand his unconventional attitude towards secular carriers or vocations, his renunciation of his property, his austerity in life and manners, his casual attitude towards dress, his independence in thought and action, his nostalgia for peasant life in Russia, his alienation from his times that he characterized as dark ages and many puzzles in his biography. His view of philosophy’s aim, his attempt at transcending it for getting the vision of the things as they really are, his rejection of the claims of conceptual analysis or linguistic analysis as explaining reality, his rejection of classical dualisms that have bedeviled Cartesian and post-Cartesian thought, his plea for convergence of the ethical and the aesthetic, his view that ethics is transcendental, his rejection of doing science and mathematics as the ideals of philosophizing endeavor, his critique of psychologism and rationalistic attempts at building a metaphysics and our addiction to use metaphysical notions in ordinary discourse at rational plane are all threads in the fabric of mystical tapestry that has so subtly woven. He rejected theological representations as many others before have done but he never rejected the symbolizandum.
He said there is no theoretical content in religious doctrines. This is, in a way, easily understandable. God is not a thing, an entity, a being among other being or existence. “God is not” as Eckhart would put it. God is Nothing as Buddhism would put it. God is all that there is as Sufism and Taoist mysticism see it. Samsara and nirvana are really one.
There can be no doubt about the mystical in Wittgenstein. Amongst the most loved books of him are included William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience and Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief, Augustine’s Confessions, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov in which Father Zossima figures, and writings of George Fox and Plato. He claimed that Vienna circle people didn’t understand Tractatus and that few will understand it and in fact his learned commentators still mostly miss its kernel, its last pages and especially the closing proposition. His only public lecture is through and through a mystical piece. His only published book during his life time is an attempt to delineate the sacred realm and prevent its debasement by speculative metaphysics and exoteric theology. His notebooks are marked by the mystical passion. His Culture and Value criticizes modern Western civilization on precisely religious-mystical grounds. His Philosophical Grammar, Blue Book and Philosophical Investigations have mysticism in the background and in fact pave way for it. The most important questions of life that science or logical positivism or any reductionist philosophy miss need, according to him, to be treated mystically. His respect for religion as a form of life – though this belongs to the exoteric part of his work – and his refusal to take cudgels on behalf of theologians are explainable through the thesis of the mystical that he values above everything.
If we don’t comprehend such typical mystical statements as “Samsara and nirvana are one,” “God is what is,” “ I see nothing but God everywhere,” “God is the Hidden and the Manifest” “ God is our ultimate concern,” “Eternity is the present moment,” “Don’t prat about God; God is not,” “God is neither good nor true,” “God is the sweetness of all sweat things,” “ God is Beauty and Truth,” “ God is the real Doer,” “It is God that sees and listens rather than we,” “God is the knownest of the Known,” “No doubt can be entertained regarding God,” “God is the Light of the World,” “God is the Totality, the Whole,” “God is the most immediate of the present facts and unattainable quest” we can’t comprehend mysticism of Wittgenstein. He saw everything from mystical (what he wrongly called religious) point of view. His metaphysics of experience is built on the foundations provided by mystical attitude towards life and the world. The central doctrines and conceptions of religion or theology are understood in light of mystical interpretation that informs Wittgenstein.
Review of works on the mystical in Wittgenstein
The problem with most of the works done on this theme is that they have not been done by the students of mysticism but philosophy and that too a very hostile antimetaphysicalantimystical philosophy. How deeply ironic it is that Wittgenstein would be understood as supporter of the manifesto of logical positivism that banished as nonsense everything which concerned Wittgenstein the most. Science for Wittgenstein has not and could not even touch the problem of life, the problem of meaning, the problem of transcendence. His critique of psychologism meant saying good bye to one of the most fashionable reductionist approaches to spiritual reality. His denial of self was negation of everything for which secular humanism and modern individualism stands. His characterization of scientific-technological civilization as dark ages places him squarely with other great religious critics of Enlightenment thought. For him modern positivist civilization lacked culture and therefore was cursed. He lamented that Russell, Carnap and many others who were so close to him didn’t really understand him and those who claimed to be his followers didn’t make spiritual endeavour share the spiritual vacation that moved him. He was every inch a mystic and no doubt should be entertained regarding this. Both Russell and Carnap accused him of mysticism and in fact none of the Wittgenstein scholars or biographers has denied the element of mystical in him but none has been able to see how mysticism is the key to his whole thought not excluding the latter Wittgenstein. Logic is a tool for paving the way to the supralogical or transcendental. In fact mystical is the case for him and needs no arguments. The unrepresentable shows forth. It is there to be contemplated, breathed and enjoyed. God is everywhere and nowhere. Man is not. He lives and moves and has his being in God. My purpose here is to make some general remarks on the centrality of the mystical in Wittgenstein and thus help to put in perspective the critical writings on his religion besides clarifying why it should matter in any discussion of him. I shall particularly focus on his Notebooks (1914-16) to argue my case though I shall not ignore the Tractatus which has been much though still inadequately and often not quite rightly commented upon from this perspective.
Amongst those who have sympathetically written on his mysticism Russell Neili should count as the most important and balanced. Atkinson reads him as a pantheist as if Wittgenstein had not placed transcendence outside the world in so clear terms. Malcolm and some other critics who have written on his view of religion as a language game have missed the mystical core of his religiosity – his metaphysics of experience – to recall Pradhan’s title of his very useful book – I believe it is Indians who can better comment on Wittgenstein because the metaphysics that he affirms – metaphysics as suprarational intuitive or intellectual instead of speculative rational affair – belongs to India especially. (Indians have no difficulty in understanding Buddha as a mystic and Buddhism as a great metaphysic even if Buddha refused to answer 14 metaphysical questions). Brian McGuiness has made a useful small study and there are valuable insights in Kerr’s Theology after Wittgenstein. Mark Lazenby in The Early Wittgenstein on Religion pays attention to the mystical in him and rightly points out that McGuinness’s view that Wittgenstein is a nature mystic in the Tractatus is not correct and instead argues that he is actually a theistic mystic. He notes that there are two worlds in Tractatus, namely the factual and the spiritual and points out that realizing this is in order to understand how there can be value inside the world. Lazenby develops this position by arguing that the factual world is the everyday one which logic characterizes and that value lies outside this world. The mystic looks back upon this world after transcending it and once it has been transcended there is nothing to say and hence silence ensues. Engleman, Dury and other acquaintances of Wittgenstein have also pointed out the profundity of his mystical outlook. In fact logical positivist camp soon discovered that he is not amongst them. Wittgenstein’s differences with Russell and positivist friends are largely attributable to his mystical-ethical convictions. Many papers have been written to argue the point that Wittgenstein had mystical convictions but very few studies have been able to convincingly link his life and work and interpret him consistently on mystical lines. He has been approached more from theological/religious than from mystic-metaphysical viewpoint. The present paper seeks to fill the gap.
K.C Pandey’s edited collection Perspectives on the Unsayable shows a glimpse of confusion on Wittgenstein’s fundamental contributions to the debate on religion or transcendence. There are disagreements over the nature of his religiosity, cognitive status of religious claims, central metaphysical notions such as the self in relation to God, the meaning of the unsayable etc. Wittgenstein has been approached as a philosopher and not as a mystic and this contributes to confusions. So far few scholars specializing in mysticism have written on Wittgenstein and this has complicated problems. Wittgenstein is a mystic and a metaphysician of a different order – he does metaphysics as many traditional philosopher-sages have been doing it. It is nonrational route for doing metaphysics that he takes. I think the best guide to understanding traditional non-rational metaphysics is the trinity of perennialistmetaphyiscians Rene Guenon, AnandaCoomaraswamy and FrithjofSchuon. For Wittgenstein – to refute his postmodernist appropriations that argue he is a prisoner of language and textuality – what can’t be said is the case. The world is not explained by science or philosophy or anything that employs language.
In a remarkable book Wittgenstein and the Mystical: Philosophy as an Ascetic Practice Fredrick Sontag sets ten themes that run throughout Wittgenstein’s work. The “themes” dominated Wittgenstein’s life and, Sontag argues, provide a way to understand Wittgenstein’s work. The themes are, as his reviewer puts it, : (1) Philosophy as an ascetic practice; (2) The philosopher as existentialist/pragmatist; (3) The monk’s isolated search for forgiveness; (4) The penitent’s search for forgiveness; (5) The struggle with God as an unknown object; (6) Philosophy as a “religious” way of life; (7) Philosophy as a life of courage; (8) Serious philosophical pursuit has an affinity to mysticism; (9) Language has a mystical quality; (10) Insight can be imparted only to one who is serious and dedicated.
The Mystical in Wittgenstein’s texts
I focus here particularly though not exclusively on Notebooks (1914-16) and then subsume those observations and comment on them from mystical viewpoint. Some statements from Tractaus are too well known and commented to need quoting here. Almost all the statements on religion, ethics and aesthetics in the Notebooks need to be kept in focus for appreciating our reading. Here only a few statements can be quoted or alluded to while commentary proceeds.
Ethics is transcendental.
The work of art is the object seen sub species aeternitatis and the good life is the world seen sub species aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics.
The urge towards mystical comes after non-realization of our wishes by science. We feel that even with all possible scientific questions answered our problem is still not touched at all.
It is true: Man is the microcosmos.
There is no such thing as the act of the will. Will is the attitude of the subject to the world.
World in itself is neither good nor evil.
Everything is perfect.
Objects I can only name.
Where in the world is the metaphysical subject to be found?
There is no riddle.
How things stand is God.
…my will is world will.
There can and must be mentioned of I in a non-physcological sense in philosophy.
Skepticism is not irrefutable, but obvious nonsense if it tries to doubt where no question can be asked
For doubts can only exist where a question exists; a question can only exist where an answer exists, and this can only exist where something can be said.
The fact that Wittgenstein had personal mystical experience is well attested. His description of being absolutely safe and seeing creation as a miracle are so compelling that we hardly need to entertain any second opinion about the mystical in him or his encounter with the mystical. The cognizance of the fact that there is a world is enough to make one dance with ecstasy and wonder. Wonder is the beginning and end of human wisdom.
According to him philosophy is not one of the natural sciences. He made the aim of philosophy more a vision than any things else (Pradhan:237). He aims was to get “vision of things as they are and therefore he aimed transcending philosophy itself. Philosophy could be transcended only after it has given us the correct vision of the world. As we have said earlier, this vision consists in man’s knowledge of the world, or in other words, in the metaphysic.” Although metaphysical interpretation of Wittgenstein’s thought has been disputed we can still say that he does argue for a new way of looking at the world which involves a kind of transcendence quite similar to the one advocated by mystics. After enlightenment the world continues to be the same but we have one foot above the ground as famous Zen anecdote recounts. This is the whole burden of a remarkable work titled Wittgenstein: A Way of Seeing. To quote only one statement from Philosophical Investigations “What you have discovered is a new way of looking at things. As if you had invented a new way of painting; or again a new metre or a new kind of song” (401). Wittgenstein is a metaphysician in a special sense. He is a philosopher of transcendence. This point may need a clarification.
Metaphysics as conceived by its greatest masters across traditions from Nagarjuna to Sankara to Lao Tzu to Eckhart and IbnArabi consists in a vision that transforms our ordinary perception or attitude regarding the world. It is not necessarily a vision of beyond in the sense that involves moving out of oneself and talking of an abstraction or higher world ontologically distinguishable from the world we all know. It always presupposes samsara-nirvana or world-heaven equivalence. The immediate is the ultimate and path is the goal as Zen tradition would put it. God is the green in the trees and the red in the sunrays. Transcendence could well be construed as true being of beings as Heidegger would tell us or mystery of things or depth dimension of things. Everything is within according to all traditions.There is no other in absolute sense. All are one. IbnArabi’s words “you are everything, in everything, and from everything” express the vision of all great mystical thinkers. Thus all the higher worlds are part of the Self or consciousness. Ken Wilber has been emphasizing this point especially in almost all his writings. things.
To be open to revelations of transcendence is simply to keep the sense of wonder alive. Philosophy begins in wonder and mysticism makes this wonder a permanent state. The highest stage in the path is the stage of wonder or getting lost as IbnArabi says. Nietzsche was right to emphasize loyalty to this earth. In fact father Zosima in Dostovesky’s mystical work The Brothers Karamazarovsees every garden as the Garden of Eden. He says: “We don’t understand that life is a paradise [at present], for we have only to wish to understand this and it will immediately appear before us in all its beauty.”Rabbi Herschel has made the same point in different terms “Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy.”
The quarrel between transcendentalists and antitranscendentalists of almost all hues is largely verbal quibble. Platonic ideal world is not a separate world, an abstraction. But the world ordinarily thought to be world is also not the whole world but a mental construction. Blake sees eternity in an hour or infinity in a grain of sand. In fact for the mystics everything is, as it is infinite. Eternity is not an abstraction or some new realm as opposed to time but present moment. To live in eternity is to live in the present, to live moment by moment. What characterizes a philosopher of transcendence is he continues to find a depth in the world, something that excites wonder, something that invites our response and even love. Wittgenstein lucidly made this point in these words:
Some philosophers (or whatever you like to call them) suffer from what maybe called “loss of problems.” Then everything seems quite simple to them,no deep problems seem to exist any more, the world becomes broad and flatand loses all depth, and what they write becomes immeasurably shallowand trivial. Russell and H. G. Wells suffer from this (Z, 456).
His remark about Ayer after listening to his debate with Father Copleston that ‘he has a point but he is shallow’ underscores the same sensibility. His remark that “The I, the I is what is deeply mysterious”(p. 80 of his dairy) is in line with this viewpoint. Though he granted that only strictly scientific statements are meaningful but he cautioned against positivists that natural science could never touch what was really important in human life, the mystical.
That would have to be contemplated in silence. For “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent/’ as the last proposition of the Tractatusdeclared. We can understand his famous statement “I am not areligious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view”in this light. In fact religions don’t aim at even vision but advocate a discipline that makes us open or vulnerable to reality, to richness of being, to thingliness of things as Heidegger would have it, to essences of things that get expressed through things when looked at rather than thought. Wittgenstein would recommend looking instead of thinking. Transcendence of thinking is what contemplation/meditation is all about. It appears to me that Wittgenstein says nothing because nothing needs to be said. He advocates no position or privilges no point of view because this can’t be done. All his endeavor, like the mystics and prophets, is to emphasize that we need to see with open eyes, unburdened by memories or anxieties of thought. We need to see through God’s eyes. And that consists in nonegoistic vision and this makes it possible to assert that “How things stand is God.”
Wittgenstein gave great attention to language in order to show that what constitutes us and what we value most is delimited from what could be expressed in language, from profane textual domain. The Tractatus’s design was expressly determined by this consideration. For him the metaphysical self that constitutes us transcends the world, the urges that move us point beyond the world, experiences that we most cherish are of the world beyond the ordinarily familiar world, our ethical and aesthetic dimension is anchored outside the world.
For him both the willing subjects and the knowing subjects are one and both are outside of the world, and are the source of our language and world-cognition. However, as in mystical traditions, transcendence is not consummated; it remains an unfulfilled quest. It is movement, perpetual movement and not reaching anywhere. It is the limit that can never be reached. Absolute is inexhaustibly rich. Man must perpetually travel. Experiences are open ended and self is perpetually creative. Our search for transcendence, like our need to engage with philosophy is, as Pradhan has noted, “merely an ideal never to be fulfilled, because the metaphysics of experience as unfolded through our subjectivity has to be constantly guarded against unclarity and confusion through language itself. Therefore, philosophy can never ultimately be transcended, since transcendence of language itself is a continuing activity which is performed by philosophy” (Pradhan, 237). It means one can never stop worshipping or glorifying God and travel on the plane of servitude or perfect his surrender or state of innocence or vulnerability to reality. Mystics, as true philosophers (as traditionally understood activity) are always striving to remove the veils of language and thought in order to reach the still centre of existence that transcends language and thought. Wittgenstein is quite clear on the point that Conceptual analysis can teach nothing about reality. Nor resolve the puzzle of how we should understand the world and how we should live. He leaves all questions open and thus paves way for alternative approaches that bypass conceptual analysis and science for understanding or living the great mystery of life.
As Paul Johnson notes: “The conclusion of a Wittergenstein investigation still have all great questions open. As far as the Inner is concerned, in one sense it will always remain as mysterious as life itself” (Johnson: 239). This is precisely mystical attitude towards mystery of life. No question is answered. Only our plane of seeing life shifts and dissolves the ordinary sense of questions. We consent to unlearn. The learned ignorance. “The mystic is an extraordinarily ordinary person” He is a non-knower, non-caner. “The human need for account for the world and our place in it will not disappear, because traditional metaphysics has been shown to be flawed… accepting these points doesn’t involve embracing relativism and is close to a moral argument. (Pradhan, 239). It means the mystic, the artist, the poet, the scientist, shall ever be busy and man needs to be humble. Let Reality speak to him. Let him learn to be receptive. Imposing conceptual structures is violence. We need to learn to be still so that God speaks to us in silence. This opening up, surrender of self, emptying out and polishing our receptivity is what is the crux of Vedanta as Som Raj Gupta has argued in his largely ignored but superb work Word Speaks to the Faustian Man (1991). In fact all religious and mystical traditions are agreed on this point.
Wittgenstein’s statement that ‘God is the meaning of life’ is quintessentially mystical and best understood in light of mystical writings. Underhill’s explication of the meaning of life in mysticism is best commentary on this statement. One can’t be more God intoxicated to equate the most significant thing in life with God. Wittgenstein’s statement that man is a microcosmos is comprehensible only in mystical worldview. He also observed that “As a thing among things each thing is equally insignificant. As a world each one equally significant” (7-10-16) which reminds of Blake’s seeing the heaven in a grain of sand. Mystics have never doubted the significance of the meanest flower or blade of grass seeing everything as the face of the Absolute, as participating in everything.
Wittgenstein famously remarked that the riddle doesn’t exist and the solution of the problem of life is seen in the disappearance of the problem of life. For mystics God is the Light of the world. The question is how to live and that dissolves the problem or riddle. Life is not a riddle to be solved but a mystery to be lived, dissolved in. Riddle exists for those who want to conceptually approach life that resists all logic. The problem of meaning of life is the problem of how to live, how to live so that life stops being problematic. For him good life is world seen in certain way rather than in a way of behaving. For him there is no value in the world (6.41). It is impossible for to be there proposition of ethics (6.42). The problem of how to live becomes for him not some epistemological inquiry the problem of how to look at that world, the problem of how to find the right spirit in it.
Wittgenstein assigns key importance to art, on the ground that art alone can express the meaning of life. Only the artist can teach the things that matter most in life. For him art is the solution. Compare this with Coomaraswamy or Schuon on art and aesthetics and we get the full import of the statement.
Wittgenstein has categorically stated the error of moderns for believing that laws of science explain nature. The world is suffused in mystery that is divine. The very fact that there is a world is incomprehensible and metaphysical. God has been conceived as mystery, as given, as something that is – ‘what is’ in Augustine’s and Krishnamurti’s phrase. Who can afford to deny the “gratuitous” universe? Philosophy begins and ends in wonder explaining nothing and demanding our opening up towards the transcendent miracle of existence. Modern man’s key problem in engaging positively or creatively with religion/mysticism arises from felt absence/hiddenness of God in contemporary experience. But taken as synonymous with Reality the complaint seems to lose all warrant. God is the only Experiencer, Knower and Actor.
For IbnArabi, the great Sufi metaphysician, we don’t see but God sees and we don’t hear but God listens. God is immanent in every experience. As he says:
If we gaze, it is upon Him; if we use our intelligence, it is towards Him; if we reflect, it is upon Him; if we know it is Him. For it is He who is revealed in every face, sought in every sign, worshipped in every object of worship, and pursued in the invisible and the visible. The whole world prays to Him, prostrates itself before Him and glorifies His praise; tongues speak of Him, hearts are enraptured by love for Him, minds are bewildered in Him (Futûhât, III: 449-50).
For Wittgenstein these lines of IbnArabi would be perfectly comprehensible given his notion of metaphysical subject and its role in constituting experience, his view of the world as my world. Here I propose to compare Wittgenstein and IbnArabi by keeping IbnArabi’s explication in the background while applying the same for understanding Wittgenstein. Agnosticism and skepticisms of various orientations in the contemporary world have a point if understood as the declaration of impossibility of conceptually knowing the Reality, Transcendent Principle, the Ground of existence, the whole Truth, the Mystery. However these are often presented in cruder versions that deny men any knowledge of the supraphenomenal or the very existence of the sacred for which Wittgenstein and IbnArabiwill have zero tolerance. The Pure Absolute or Essence (Dhat) in its fundamental aspect – and thus Meaning/Truth/ Presence/ Identity/ Reality per se – is beyond the human quest and all attempts to reach It, track it, pinpoint It, catch It in the net of language or realm of the finite or time, to conceptualize It, to imagine It, to speak about It, to affirm anything of It are doomed. Before the Ipseity or Dhat one can only be bewildered according to Ibn ‘Arabî and Wittgenstein. The world is ultimately a Mystery, a Mystery of Mysteries and no rational or scientific approach could finally and completely demystify it. The world being ultimately a mystery that resists being demystified by means of conceptual intellect is what transcendence implies as Stace has explained in his Time and Eternity (1952). There is no humanely discoverable ultimate truth. All representations of the Real are provisional. Godhead/ Absolute/ Zat-uz-Zat is opaque, deep deep darkness, impenetrable, the absolutely inscrutable unknowable Other. Gnosis consists in knowing that God can’t be known as Abu Bakr is quoted time and again by IbnArabi. As the world is not-He and man ever a worshipper of his Lord or conditioned by his belief – a notion subsumable under the concept of form of life in Wittgenstein, and nothing is ever repeated as God’s theophanies change ceaselessly imply that the world will never cease to be an object of wonder and fascination and Beauty never cease to be worshipped and act as an efficient net through which God catches most of his servants as Plato also noted.
Rationalization, familiarization, demystification and descaralization of the world that ultimately make it inhuman, alienating and absurd and disrespectful towards the Big Other can’t happen in the Akbarian/Wittgensteinian perspective that sees the mysterious, sacred divine face in everything. Western philosophy, as Heidegger pointed out, is oblivious to the ground of being. It is not open to the sacred mystery of Being. It is not the philosopher but the poet who can show the track of the holy, to the sacred mystery of Being. Nothing in the world of known can express the Divine Darkness. All quests end in wonder. In the last analysis man knows nothing to its depth by means of senses, language and reason. Other modes of knowledge such as intellectual intuition give us another kind of knowledge that instead of making things comprehensible dissolves the knowing subject in the object preserving the ultimate mystery of things in the process. If to comprehend means to have discursive conceptual knowledge we comprehend nothing ultimately. All our explanations, analyses stop at a certain point. Things are as they are. There is something instead of nothing. Being or wajudis in the last analysis a miracle or a scandal to reason. Why should there be a knowing subject and why should our universe be comprehensible are perhaps unanswerable. Man knows but little and this applies to everything from God to quarks. God is incomparable, transcendent. Symbols are all we know. We can only name things and that is all but things escape us as Wittgenstein would say. God alone knows or is Knowledge. The knowledge of reality given to mystics and prophets is of a different order. God remains inscrutable and the sacred inapproachable. Man’s prerogative is to contemplate and dissolve in the mystery of being. Though being is aware of itself this awareness has no analyzable or knowable structure.
We are here and there is no cure for it. But, more precisely, we are not. Only God is. Only the play of divine names is and man happens to be a locus of their action rather than some independent subject or agency. The cloak of mystery can’t be removed from the universe. All human knowledge is progressive unveiling of the ultimate impenetrability of the veil that disguises Reality. Essences are not discursively known. Existence is a mystery and its grandeur and sublimity defy our reason and its categories. Rereading of Kantian sublime by such writers as Derrida or Lyotard is based on increasingly felt inability of reason to contain the brutal power of imagination. We can’t conceptualize or represent in language the infinity which human beings do encounter. The highest station is that of bewilderment according to IbnArabi and Wittgenstein . All this implies that dogmatisms are unwarranted. Exoteric theologies need to be on guard and take Wittgenstein seriously as Kerr has also argued in Theology after Wittgenstein.
It is God and not the name of God that religions seek. Exoteric theologies may not distinguish between the Truth and the descriptions or representations of Truth. Nothing can capture the Reality in rational propositional framework. Even ethical propositions are not possible for Wittgenstein. This means we can only know our inability to know God and will good on our own and this means humility in the face of the Great Mystery that God is. This vetoes all self righteous fundamentalist ideologies. Jaina doctrine of syadvada is a corollary of the fundamental mystery and transcendence of the First Principle, the Absolute. This rules out all totalistic or totalitarian claims. Ideological conflicts are based on one’s exclusive claim to have access to truth and denying one’s fallibility. Religions by relegating truth to transcendent realm and its access to transcendent intellect (which is in us but not ours) veto all quarrels about accessibility to it of any worldly ideology and self-centric person. Secular philosophies that require no moral purification on the part of the philosopher are barred from entering the doors of the great King or Truth.
The essential ethics of Wittgenstein like that of IbnArabi is constituted by such virtues as disinterest, self-denial, charity and love which form the ethical core of all religious/mystical traditions. God is experienced by everyone who sincerely cultivates these virtues. (Post)Modernity has essentially no argument against these values and indeed affirms them. Ibn ‘Arabî has nothing to argue for and against – he only invites us to experience things afresh, to be open to the Real which alone is really experienced in every experience. Wittgenstein’s endeavour is similar in his invitation to transcend language and thought in order to see what is, to see things sub species aeternitatis, to see solution in aesthetics, to live rather than think the mystery that life is. God is not a hypothesis that one needs to prove or could question – He is the ground of every perception, every imagination, every conception or thought, every experience. As Wittgenstein puts it there is no answer as there is no question where nothing can be said.
Wittgenstein is not himself a philosopher in the modern sense of the term which sees reason as the chief if not the only tool for understanding or approaching reality. His view of modern philosophers could not but be largely negative. For projecting IbnArabi or Wittgenstein as a philosopher we need to refer to perennialist conception of philosopher and philosophy. His denunciation of rationalism and much of what today passes for intellectuality aligns him to perennialist critics of modern thought. It is not a prerogative of ratio or mental faculty of reason but of nous, the supraindividual universal faculty of intellect. For Wittgenstein knowing and willing subjects are one and man is knowledge, so to speak. Instead of conceptualizing we can see and in order to pave way for that direct seeing he removes the traps and cobwebs that language builds. Philosophy should not be a mere theoretical rational inquiry, a conceptual analysis or analysis of language as an end in itself but a realization, intellection or noetic vision that transcends subject-object duality and demands something like ethical discipline that Plato argued for. Philosophy as an abstract philosophical discourse based on rationalistic scientific method and its methodically obtained “truths” is what Ibn ‘Arabî and Wittgenstein often critique. Philosophy for Wittgenstein is not a method to discover truth but a sort of shock therapy to prepare us for receiving truth, to make us innocent or children again. It is a sort of death to the linguistically/conceptually constructed self. Philosophy implies for all of the ancients a moral conformity to wisdom: only he is wise, sophos, who lives wisely as Schuon notes (8:136). Living happily is living wisely. Living in such a way that problem disappears and there is no more sorrow and one partakes of eternity by living in the present is what Wittgenstein is all about. Philosophy in the traditional Orphic-Pythagorean sense is wisdom and love combined in a moral and intellectual purification in order to reach the “likeness to god.”( Uzdavinys, 2005). It is contemplation of Beauty and Good. This is attainable by gnosis. By philosophizing ancients meant “both noetic activity and spiritual practice.” Wittgensteinian conception is remarkably similar.
In IbnArabi’s understanding the Real alone is and there is no distance between us and It. We are already there in the lap of God – we have never been really away and cannot be away from It. God has never been missed. We have forgotten or fallen asleep but this doesn’t alter the fact that God is our very being, our inmost reality. Man is inwardly God and outwardly a creature according to Ibn ‘Arabî. The world is God’s visible face. The real, the obvious, that which is always with us, has been always with us, will always be with us, is God. God is the world. God is how things are as Wittgenstein would put it. But this doesn’t make him a pantheist as he has categorically stated also that God is outside the world, the world constructed by language, by a self that sees it as the other.
God is the Isness of things. He is the Meaning of everything as Wittgenstein said. God constitutes all pervasive Environment (al-Muhitin the Quranic parlance) in which normal man lives, moves and has his being.
Realizing that everything is perfect this very moment or, in Buddhist (Nagarjunian) terminology, that samsara is nirvana is realizing God. Wittgenstein’s transcendence of good/evil binary and pleading for a vision of perfect harmony between the self and the “alien will” called God and seeing everything as unalterably perfect makes the same point. Such notions as “Ground of being” “ depth of life” “mystery of things or existence” which many moderns have advocated as substitute metaphors for what used to be conventionally called God and most often pictured with a human face by anthropomorphic idolatrous imagination seem to be given some representation in this fundamentally Unitarian view of God as Totality, as Reality.
God is not an epistemological problem at all that our mind/reason can investigate. He is a percept rather than a concept for Ibn ‘Arabî and Wittgenstein. In more poetic terms He is a song to be sung rather than an abstract Being, a Being among other beings but a Being of beings. God is “the knownest of the known” and so close that we only need to open our eyes, to cleanse the doors of perception to see how. Belief in God is not a proposition for Ibn ‘Arabî and Wittgenstein but a matter of tasting, experiencing the divine (or the revelations of sheer Being), which, to him, presents itself in all experiences every moment and for everyone – in fact God is the Hearing and the Seeing as is often reiterated in the Quranic verse – and not just to a select few in the so-called religious experience which is a Jamesian construct uncritically accepted by many modern philosophers of religion. All the roads lead to His abode as they proceed from it. God is the name of ‘that which is.’ He is not something within isness, he himself is that which is.
Knowing oneself after denying the illusory desiring ego one comes to subsist in God. All beliefs and disbeliefs are in the realm of duality and need to be transcended. IbnArabi’s and Wittgenstein’s Unitarian Metaphysics is transtheistic and transcends both theism and atheism. This Unitarianism leads to the realization that the world is ultimately none other than the Absolute and thus finding everything perfect this very moment or seeing eternity here and now. Wittgen
Modern man’s problems are primarily with a constricted dualistic theological view of God and static absolutes of idealistic philosophies. Ibn ‘Arabî’s and Wittgenstein’s conception of divinity is not vulnerable to these standard critiques of theistic and idealistic philosophical pictures. Most empiricist-positivist-postmodernist critiques look beside the point and based on faulty construction of religious experience. Modern philosophy of religion seems to have gloriously misunderstood the central experience of religion if Akbarian exposition is accepted. It is not a subject that sees something which constitutes the essence of religious experience or mystical vision for Wittgenstein or IbnArabi. It is more a discovery or insight into things as they are, an attitude, a way of seeing the world rather than a particular or extraordinary experience.
Wittgenstein, like traditional philosopher-sages, is more concerned about certainties “seen” or “lived” by the immanent Intellect, as did the best of Greeks than about building rational speculative metaphysics. Cracks, crises and emasculations of the discipline of philosophy in the modern West could have been avoided if the West had not opted for Latin Averrorism and Cartesian rationalism and consequent dualisms and irresolvable problems that still haunt its epistemology and other areas like ontology.
Wittgenstein, like IbnArabi, provides a possible exit point from the choking morass of skeptical thought currents which otherwise doom us to abysmal ignorance regarding our most important questions in life including possibility of certain knowledge and knowledge of good life or good action.
“The final end and ultimate return of the gnostics … is that the Real is identical with them, while they don’t exist” said IbnArabi. Wittgenstein arrives at similar conclusions through a different route. It is through the metaphysical realization that one realizes that the Self withdraws from the “servant-Lord” polarity and resides in its own transpersonal being. The subject-object dichotomy is transcended by virtue of pure intellect or Spirit, which is identical with the divine Essence” (Qaisar, 2002:133). Once the soul or nafs has withered away in the experience of fana, the self-identity of mystic realization is transformed into the Self-identity of metaphysical realization. In the metaphysical perspective the reality of the ‘I’ doesn’t belong to man or nafsbut to the Spirit which is the divine spark at the center of man’s being identical with the unmanifest consciousness or Divine Essence. The crucial distinction between soul and Spirit is necessary to understand the Akbarian-Wittgensteinian metaphysical conception of religious experience. This distinction is largely forgotten by most philosophical critics of religious experience. Numerous misunderstandings and debates of theological vs. mystical debate in religions and meaning of such notions as soul/spirit, God/man, could be resolved if we keep these key points in mind. A fruitful dialogue with critics of religion and mysticism and in fact with secular thought in general is possible if we keep in mind ingenious interpretations put forward of many exponents of nondualism in the contemporary world.
Love of the World and Discovering God as Unutterable Joy
For Wittgenstein happy life is life divine and the great moral prerogative. It comes by loving the world, byamorfati. It comes from transcending the principle of ego which judges from self-centric perspective. Jesus said “judge not.” For Wittgenstein joy accompanies this surrender of vanity of the self in the All Embracing Divine Environment or “alien” Cosmic Will. He defined God as the Other, the Great Other that dictates terms, that constrains one, that embodies principle of Necessity.
One is reminded of many writings and especially the following from Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 32 in one of his sermons.
As the harvest, in the vineyard, wherever men must labour hard, they begin with songs whose words express their joy. But when their joy brims over and words are not enough, they abandon even this coherence and give themselves up to the sheer sound of singing. What is this jubilation, this exultant song; It is the melody that means out hearts are bursting with feelings words cannot express. An to whom does this Jubliation most belong? Surely to God, who is unutterable. And does not unutterable mean what cannot be uttered? If words will not come and you may not remain silent, what else can you do but let the melody soar? (Qtd.In Kerr, 1986:167).
In mystical perspective God is joy and awareness of God is joy and thus awareness of reality in which all association with the self is put aside. If it is possible to access Reality or God nihilism is overcome. Weil has an ingenious argument to show that awareness of reality is joy and despair or sadness is a loss of contact with reality. This is her expression of old mystical /metaphysical viewpoint which identifies God as ananda, bliss. Simone Weil expresses the identity of joy with the awareness of reality. Since beauty is manifest appearance, the striking sign of reality, joy can only be a feeling, an awareness of reality. Weil describes sadness as a loss of contact with reality. Through sadness we cannot fulfill our vacation – to understate misery of our condition and to accept our reduction to what we truly are: nothing. The memory of the revelation of reality through joy keeps us from plunging into despair, and the joy felt in our nothingness can be inscribed in our sensibility only by suffering. “Joy and pain are equally precious gifts both of which must be savoured fully, and each in its purity…” ( Weil, 1951: 132).
Simone Weil best captures the essence of many ideas that Wittgenstein only briefly touches. I think her observations allow us to make sense of Wittgenstein’s many observations from a mystical perspective. I reproduce some of her observations to put Wittgenstein in perspective and make him comprehensible.
Wittgenstein maintained that God is the Meaning of life and one must love the world unconditionally to appropriate this meaning. Weil is at her best in showing how one creates the meaning in life by renouncing all personal meanings, by complete acceptance of submission to the order of the world. One loves the order of the world by renouncing all personal interests. This is, in practice, close to Spinoza’s view of love of God by renouncing every vestige of personal interest. Freedom lies in recognizing our utter dependence on Totality, on God and in fact giving up sense of illusory autonomy or freedom that we associate with a separate individuality. We are not asked to do something against which our heart or head rebels but just shifting the perception in accordance with the nature of things. One is just asked to accept or recognize the obvious fact that there is the order called necessity, which exists prior to us and which is there for reasons not necessarily understandable in human terms. Reality is there that transcends all our estimates, evaluations, desires and constitutes the given and man has no choice but to accept it by renouncing that which would have led him to rebellion – the sense of individuality and freedom outside God. “Where there is complete, authentic, and unconditioned consent to necessity, there is the fullness of love of God” (Weil, 1956: 267). Other texts identify the supernatural faculty in us as consent. For Weil that consent is always consent to the good, and, as such, it is the good itself. Faith is itself this faculty of submission or consent according to her. Absurdism rejects this notion of consent as a species of bad faith. Affirming the principle of autonomy and freedom in man independent of God it can’t but reject consent and consequently suffer alienation, angst and all those things with which absurdist literature is suffused.
All traditions emphasize remembrance of God. Modern mystics such as Krishnamurti translate it as attention or choiceless awareness. Weil has a similar understanding. Attention bridges division of subject and object, knower and known. Attention consists in suspending thought, in making it available, enmity, penetrable by the object….Thought must be empty, waiting, not searching for anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which will penetrate there (Weil, 1951: 92-3). For her God is attention without distraction. It is living as a witness, a detached subject or awareness that watches every moment, that lives in the present by transcending thinking which distracts one from the given, the present. Living beyond the mind, in what has been called as the space of no-mind where time doesn’t enter and thus neither fear nor hope nor any need of consolation. God is what is in Krishnamurti’s phrase and to live in God is to be aware of what is without judgment, without condemnation, disinterestedly. Wittgenstein pleaded for seeing without the conceptual glasses, seeing things as they are after transcending philosophy. He meant something similar. Contemplation is a means of transcending confusions created by use or misuse of language.
Giving up the centre of one’s own value system is harder, but when we succeed, the very sensibility changes and we become capable of a new way of seeing. We are able to “empty ourselves of little false divinity, deny oneself, to renounce being at the centre of the world, to discern all the points of the world as being centers in the same title and the veritable centre as being outside the world.” Wittgenstein was all for this ascesis, this transformation in attitude and not correcting one’s views by updating our knowledge of history or science. By saying that God is outside the world or aesthetics is transcendental he meant adopting the divine perspective of seeing things from outside the world. This necessitates transcendence of individuality and human way of seeing and judging. When we are no longer centers we can’t condemn anything and can justify the world.
Weil argues that one shouldn’t desire particular things or pray for particular things because that is slavery. Her argument practically converges with the formula of amorfati and loving everything as if there is eternal recurrence. This alone ensures unconditional love. Total renunciation is demanded for loving the order of the world or affirming everything unconditionally. To quote her:
Nothing can be produced unless the conditions for its production are brought together.
Such and such a thing calls for such and such a condition. But if one thinks: everything can be produced, given the conditions, and everything is equivalent…
If one desires a particular thing one becomes enslaved to the series of conditions. But if one desires the series itself, the satisfaction of this desire is unconditioned.
That is why the one and only liberation is love of the order of the world.
Christ on the cross, the greatest harm inflicted on the greatest good [can anything be more absurd and more revolting]: if one loves that, one loves the order of the world (Weil, 1970:143-144).
Nietzsche suggests a similar way of overcoming nihilism. Affirming the order of the world, praying for nothing, or letting one consent to the order of the world, freedom from the self that seeks consolation and this or that thing – these are the strategies common to Weil and Wittgenstein and in fact is the mystical position. Eckhart teaches the same thing.
Man has only two choices – to affirm his will, his autonomy or to affirm divine or cosmic will and his creatureliness, his nothingness. The first choice pits him against God and against cosmos and leads him to wail and despair for that which is thwarted, which is not honored in the scheme of things. When one renounces free will and thus choice between good and evil one no longer wishes good against evil to be done to him. Everything is justified because both good and evil are really one. (This relative understanding of good and evil is to be distinguished from that supreme value which Plato calls Good which stands above all relative distinctions.) Camus finds Christianity based on great injustice as an innocent lamb was sacrificed. Weil leaves no scope for any such reading. We too are asked to consent to die, to be crucified, to love God in utter desolation of the Spirit when He seems absent as He was when the Christ cried.
Wittgenstein wanted us to see things from God’s perspective or sub species aeterneti. Weil asks for adapting the perspective of God or the non-perspective of supraindividual faculty of intellect (nuous as distinct from ratio or discursive reason). For attaining this perspective one has to die first. One starts from the Absolute and from the perspective of the Absolute man, his free will, his dreams, his autonomy is an anomaly, a state of disequilibrium. If individual is engulfed in the Absolute as critics of perennialists point out or as existentialists argue against monists, it is something for which nothing can be done. If we are concerned with truth and not sentimentalism there is no escape from the tragic fact that individual or ego doesn’t count in the face of the Absolute. Are we after truth as such or truth as it appears to our subjective predispositions, to our heart? God is Truth and man may be in need of consolation though truth need not be necessarily consoling. From perennialist/Weil’s perspective the need for consolation is a weakness and a species of bad faith. This also explains Wittgenstein’s critique of conventional prayer as petition.We need to be iron-willed, capable of facing utter solitude or Void (Neant). It is only the strong man, the superman, who can unconditionally affirm and love fate – a fatalist in this higher sense is a man of strong character – or consent to eternal recurrence. Weil thus advocates the perspective of God in contrast to man-centric perspectives that individualist subjectivist thought currents advocate. This appropriates Keatsian negative capability, Nietzsche’s perspectivism and Jainism’s syadvadaas all these imply openness to infinitely nuanced and multidimensional character of reality or truth.
Meaning of Providence
Wittgenstein observed in Tractatus. “How things in the world are a matter of complete indifference what is higher. God does not revel him self in the world.” He rejected conception of prayer as petition. He, however, attempted to make sense of religious person’s trust in God and religious language that express care of God. Weil explains this difficult problem in her own characteristic way. We need to note that nothing is gratuitous and nothing is meaningless and nothing is out of God’s control, care and mercy in God-centric view though nothing is respectful of human egoism which wants things according to the self’s desire. Not a sparrow falls except by the writ of providence. There is no role for chance. God is equally present everywhere, in all circumstances. Even rain drops fall in a measured quantity and angel accompanies every drop. This is the conviction of all religions, even those who have no personal God to look into the affairs of the world. However these statements are best understood by those who are familiar with the strange language of God. One can approach such statements not as cognitive verifiable statements that positivist or empiricist could handle but only by being within a “form of life” and mastering the rules and conventions of the particular game. Despite the fact that God is “absent’’ for Weil there is providence, the mystery of which is not decipherable to the uninitiated, to those profane inquirers who refuse to be annihilated in God and insist on seeing things outside God. The following account is irrefutable on its own terms by outsiders.
All the events of life, whatever they may be, without exception, are by conventions or signs of God. God establishes a conventional language with his friends. Every event in life is a word of this language. These words are all synonymous but, as happens in beautiful languages, each of them has its completely specific nuance, each of them is untranslatable. The meaning common to all these words is: I love you.
A man drinks a glass of water. The water is God’s “I love you.” He is two days in the desert without finding anything to drink. The dryness in his throat is God’s “I love you” … Those who are beginning to learn this language think that only some of its words mean “I love you.” Those who know the language know that it has only one meaning (Weil, 1970:128-129).
There is no providence that pertains to our created nature which itself is a result of injustice because by definition it tends to be autonomous and in opposition to the whole, the totality that the term God designates. What transcends the world is indeed indifferent towards the concerns of the world as Wittgenstein would say. To be born is indeed sin according to both Christian and Eastern traditions because it involves separation from the ground and thus a kind of fall. (Redemption consists in, according to Weil, consenting to return to God what is His, i.e. our very being or existence. Metaphysically our being is a non-being and God alone is truly real and the illusory dream of separate existence must be given up and this constitutes salvation.) Providence has, as in Beckett, only a negative meaning, of ensuring decreation so that the dust returns to dust and the uncreated Spirit comes to its own glory. Because creation is abandonment it necessarily implies subjection to necessity and thus, in a sense, absence of providence in the usually accepted sense of the term.
God abandons our whole entire being – flesh, blood, sensibility, intelligence, love – to the pitiless necessity of matter and the cruelty of the devil, except for the eternal and supernatural part of the soul.
The Creation is abandonment. In creating what is other than Himself, God necessarily abandoned it. He only keeps under His care the part of Creation which is Himself – the uncreated part of every creature. That is the Life, the Light, the Word…” (Weil, 1970: 103).
God himself can’t prevent what has happened from having happened. What better proof that the creation is an abdication? What greater abdication of God than is represented by time?
We are abandoned in time. God is not in time.
God emptied himself of his divinity and filled us with a false divinity. Let us empty ourselves of it. This act is the purpose of the act by which we were created
At this very moment God, by his creative will, is maintaining me in existence, in order that I may renounce it (Weil, 1970:140).
One doesn’t ask of providence to take care of this and that because if one loves the order of the world one transcends it with all its misery. Love is transcendence. It is we who are asked to redeem or justify ourselves in relation to the Totality. Love of the world takes all its pain. Love, in the final analysis, is the one thing needful that solves all problems. Here Rumi comes to mind who says love cures all ills. As Weil says: “It is sufficient if we consent to this order of things.” Faith is precisely this demand for loving the world which God has made and found good. Faith is trust in the order of things. It is gratitude towards Existence. It is self effacement before the whole, the Totality, the Tao. It is renunciation of all claims to a separate selfhood over and against the Whole.
Meaning of time and Eternity
Weil has a time tested mystical mechanism of ending of time called decreation. Decreation, according to Weil, means the “end of time.” There is an eternal and hidden part of soul which has the reservoir of energy “beyond time.” Through it one lives beyond time. Nihilism is overcome by those prepared to live it to hilt by annihilating oneself, by eliminating the seeking self which lives in time and rising above the mind which lives in past and future and never beyond time, in the moment. Cultivating the faculty of undistracted attention and intelligence one breaks through the prison of time. Weil is convinced as is Beckett that there is a timeless dimension which is our home.
The entire life of the self is directed towards the future because its substratum is supplementary energy, “produced” only by motives whose ends are in the future (or in the past) (Weil, 1956: 184). One should live in the present breaking the ties with the future and the past. Here Heidegger comes to mind who sees life as project into future. Being reduced to the present moment also implies a sinless state, since sin is essentially a claim to mastery over the future, the refusal of future love or suffering, or the refusal to repent of an evil act committed in the past: “If we contemplate ourselves at a specific moment – the present moment, cut off from past and future – we are innocent… Isolating a moment in this way implies forgiveness. But this isolation is detachment” (Weil, 1956: 216).
Remarks on his Ethics and Suffering
In 1939 Wittgenstein said,
The fat that life is problematic shows the shape of your life does not fit into life’s mould. So you must change the way you live and, once your life does fit into the mould, what is problematic will disappear.
Or shouldn’t I say rather: a man who lives rightly won’t experience the problem as sorrow, so for him it will not be a problem but a joy rather; in other words for him it will be a bright halo around his life, not a dubious background (CV:27).
This is the crux of mystical theodicy. This is what Buddha said in a different way. Eliminate desire and you will be in peace. Wittgenstein said this quite clearly and wondered what for are amenities. He was the monk in the true sense.
‘Ethics,’ Wittgenstein says, has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense (TLP,6.422) and he adds that “the ethical consequences must lie in the action itself. If we assume that it is a person’s actions and the way those actions are performed that create a life, then the ethical desert of those actions is simply that life itself, and since life and the world are said to be one, the ethical reward is nothing else but the fact with which the world looks back at you. To complete the account let us remember that the face that looks back at our is your own: it is tempting to speculate that your ethical reward is no more nor no less than the discovery of your own character.” From Lao Tzu to IbnArabi and Eckhart mystical ethics and its eschatological significance has been almost similarly understood. For mystics like IbnArabi people choose their stations in the other world. God only unveils their reality. People judge themselves in the light of the Absolute. Choosing to live inside the cocoon of limiting self amounts to obstructing Divine Mercy or choosing separation from the Real. Prayer establishes the dialogue between the self and transcendence. Refusing to pray – which is, for IbnArabi, simply gratitude to Existence for the gift of life – amounts to condemning oneself to self referring and self enclosed windowless subjective space. Hell is self love and nothing burns there but self will as one Christian mystic has said.
Modern world is largely convinced that ethics is relative and everything is permissible. There is no ontological foundation for ethics. There are some isolated thinkers who challenge dominant model but in almost all spheres of secular life there are no imperatives like those bequeathed by religions. In contrast Wittgenstein’s ethics, like mystical ethics, is grounded in ontology. Noble character traits are not merely extraneous qualities that have no bearing upon our mode of existence. They define our mode of existence and the extent to which we participate in the fullness of the Light of Being. He accepted and further developed by including aesthetics also in it Moore’s definition of ethics as a discovery of the Good or Divinity. Ethics, he said, is transcendental. The moral law within is not biological or cultural product. It is the voice of God. Values are from the transcendental world. His disagreements with Plato come to end here. Ethical commandments have to be observed if man desires felicity. Modern wishy washy do goodism or absolutization of ethical relativism or ethics complicit with Capitalism and other power centric ideologies are not compatible with Wittgensteinian theomorphic ethics. Capitalism and State Capitalism disguised as Marxism have little room for attributes of beauty. There is no warrant for ignoring the Scale of the Law interiorized in conscience which provides the norm. Antinomianism which has been popularized by certain libertine Gurus has no place here. Men with all their limitation and imperfections can’t claim to be infinitely beyond this world and thus beyond good and evil which we encounter at every stage of existence. Man must always separate divine viewpoint which is corollary of his incomparability from his own human, all-too-human viewpoint which is a corollary of divine similarity as IbnArabi would insist.
However all this should not be construed to imply that he countenances moralism which is typical modern heresy. The deadly criticism of Nietzsche on morality doesn’t apply to his view of ethics. Wittgenstein read Gospels in Brief by Tolstoy and then read Anti-Christ of Nietzsche and could not be moved an inch from his commitment to Tolstoy’s Christian ethical universe. Postmodern probematization of ethics and modern scientific discoveries implicating relativism of morals can’t problematize Akbarian- Wittgensteinian position as he too, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, speaks from the high mountains of the Spirit which transcends all actions, good or evil. Wittgenstein emphasizes that man is not an agent of action. He can’t will to do good. This is explainable by reference to God as the Only Doer or what Taoism calls wuweiwei, actionless action. Evil action in ordinary parlance is possible only when man is under the dominion of ego or lower self and Wittgenstein’s demand for possibility of ethics is transcendence of this principle of egoism.
It is religion taken as a metanarrative, a system, an ideology explaining things, as privileging of the otherworld or eternity at the cost of this world and time here-now and privileging of soul over body, elaborate creedal formulae coached in terms of propositions privileging the religious as distinct from or opposite to the secular, as unqualified belief in the representation of Reality and their absolutist exclusivism that IbnArabi and Wittgenstein plead for transcending by virtue of their Unitarianism that puts the Real at the centre while questioning absolutization of all conceptions and theorizations of It. The world is one. And It must be affirmed in toto. Language and thought divide the One of experience and integrity of unitary subject and the world. The Real is the essence of everything and no dualistic apprehension or categorical framework can capture it. It is the totality of all existents, a metaphysical whole that can’t be reduced to an object of knowledge by a subject that is thought to be separate from the object. All this implies that meaning closure, epistemic chauvinism, totalistic thought and consequent war on the basis of a particular conception or delimitation of the Reality/ Truth are unwarranted. Truth rather than discourse about Truth which is the prerogative of exoteric theology and rational philosophy is what the gnostic comes to realize and as it is the One and All it necessarily follows that the knower transcends all particular beliefs and views. Living Truth, dissolving in Truth rather than talking about it and fighting for it is the way to end all conflicts that arise from dualistic theological and rationalistic philosophical approaches.
For Wittgenstein religion gives one new eyes so that everything looks different and redeemed by and suffused with love. God is wherever love is, beauty is, blessedness is and grace is. In fact God is these things and not an abstraction or object. This solves the important problems of theology as well without making it pantheism either. Seen with the eyes of love, trust and faith everything appears God. God is not the name of a person or entity but the very thingness of a thing, the beauty of beauty, the goodness in the good. As Weil puts it: “God ‘not as I love, but as emerald is green. He is ‘I love.’ And I too, if I were in the state of perfection, would love as emerald is green. I would be an impersonal person (like God)” (Weil, 1970: 129). God speaks these words through all of us who love and more effectively through those who love so intensely and selflessly as to become love. What differentiates a bhakti mystic or Sufi from ordinary mortals or nonmystics is their capacity to love and it is this love which redeems them. All positive experiences – aesthetic, moral, cognitive – are bridges to God-realization.
Representation or Practice of the Self
Wittgenstein is concerned, above all, with t he happy life and that he links with transcendence of desiring or willing self. His problem is ethical and existential and his proposed solution too is on these planes that have little to do with language or representation business. His solution involves contemplating, looking, wondering, loving rather than thinking or questioning. He is struggling with/against language rather than doing business with it. His object (ethical/aesthetical/religious or mystical) is not in the world, is untouched by scientific discoveries or any speculative exercise. His concern is metaphysical and metaphysical is what he calls mysterious, mystical, outside the world, supernatural. He was interested in speaking without words – “conveying thoughts by themselves without words” (CV:15). He thought, with Goethe, that we need to learn from contemplation of untrammeled nature rather than laboratory experiement and hypothesis that distort the truth (CV:11). Like Heidegger he found the richness of being to which poets rather than philosophers point out the key to salvation.
Wittgenstein was supremely religious man and it is because he is religious in every important sense of term (rather than only in a trivial sense as G. H. von Wright claims) that he said he is not a religious man. Humility is the supreme virtue of a religious man. He had not only respect for religion (including even its rituals) but moulded his life by its dictates. One of the things Christianity says, Wittgenstein thinks, is that all sound doctrines are of no avail. One must change one’s life (or the direction of one’s life). According to him Christianity didn’t talk about what has happened or will happen to man but what happens daily to him, every moment (CV: 28). Existentialist theology and demythologization movement have been emphasizing this point as have been mystics in all climes. For all religions the greatest obstacle in one’s journey to God or beatitude is pride/ego and Wittgenstein was supremely concerned about this thing all his life and many of his biographical details can be understood in this light only.
His remarks about symbolic significance of rituals and how they embody our search for the sacred in Culture and Value and elsewhere show how profound his religious sensibility is. His dismissal of Frazer and defence of ‘primitives’ at many points against moderns show what kind of a man he was. His critique of modernity and European civilization is fundamentally on religious grounds. He found in it loss of respect for mystery, the idea of progress, lack of culture and direction or purpose, and the cult of the ugly in its art objectionable. All his beloved writers and philosophers have been religious/mystical. God was his ultimate concern as shown by exemplary moral life he lived and his wish to have been able to dedicate all his work to the glory of God. His biographer, Brian McGuiness reports that before doing any action, he prayed like this: “God be with me!”, “The spirit be with me.” Sin and thus hell were terribly real for him. He thought about sin as seriously if not more as about logic as his reply to Russell to the question regarding what he was thinking about when he came to meet him during night. Explanations, reasons, justifications come to an end in religious thinking for Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein, like the mystics before and after him, did not favour a cosmological conception of a Deity. For mystics theology is in fact autology.He was, like Spinoza, God intoxicated and standard reading of him as fideist or noncognitivist is far off the mark. His considering himself wretched and in need of infinite help and never ceasing to scrutinize the desires, vanity and all that religion cautions against shows how seriously he took religion and what grounds it.
Wittgenstein’s stand on different aspects of ethics is the following. Ethics deals with absolute value; value judgments that we often use can be reduced to facts. We can re-formulated them as hypothetical judgments of if …then form and make them to be statements of facts. Paradoxically, Wittgenstein states that we can experience value. An experience, is an event, and hence ought to be factual. It seems strange that Wittgenstein maintains that values are absolute and transcendental and yet we can experience them. Ethical values cannot be spoken or discussed about since they are transcendental
There are explicit statements of Wittgenstein that militate against any kind of fideist interpretation, extreme or moderate versions of it. For him God is the case. How things are is the mystical. These imply Wittgenstein can’t be framed in either ethical or conventional religious frameworks. He is fundamentally a mystic who has made metaphysical claims in the sense metaphysics is understood by perennialists. He has made cognitive claims of mysticism though not of religion. What better argument for cognitivity or knowledge claimand against fidiestic interpretations than his assertion that the mystical shows forth?
Wittgenstein scholars have not paid due attention to the distinction between the religious/theological and the mystical and confounded the two in approaching him resulting in quite divergent interpretations. I have foregrounded the mystical in him which grounds his religiosity and thus gives us a heremenutical tool to make sense of his different observations on religion. I argue that he is an absolutist and we should not approach him from the lens of Philosophical Investigations and then attempt to show that religion is a language game, a foundationless discourse making no cognitive or knowledge claims and a matter of faith. If Sankara or Eckhart or Augustine are absolutists Wittgenstein oo is an absolutist for whom God/eternity is absolute certainty, the first principle and is experienced rather than merely believed
The Unrepresentable shows forth
In a letter from the Russian front date 9 April 1917, to his friend Paul Engelmann, who had sent him a poem by the early nineteenth century poet Johann Ludwig Uhlan, Wittgenstein wrote.
The Poem by Uhlan is really magnificent. And this is how it is: if only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be – unutterably- contained in what has been uttered! (Qtd.In Kerr, 1986: 166).
Though one can’t clearly state what he means similar things in the writings of mystics that emphasize how God speaks when we become silent and how everything is lighted up by God and God is meaning of everything, how transcendence and immanence or samsara and nirvana are ultimately linked and even one. The unrepresentable shows forth and the gnostic sees nothing but That which is also the Light of the world, the light that is neither of the sea nor of the land but light that lights everything.
Though we should guard against the identification of the inexpressible and the mystical it is nevertheless clear that the really mystical for Wittgenstein transcends the world but can be accessed in ethical life rooted in transcendence and mystical and aesthetic experiences and concretely lived in religious forms and rituals. If the Unrepresentable were not accessible there would be no meaning for Wittgenstein’s taking cudgels on its behalf and judging modern intellectual thought currents from religio-mystical viewpoint.
Wittgenstein rejects all the important modernist myths such as that of progress and criticizes reductionism in anthropology and psychologism to pave way for faith. He judges modernity in the light of faith. It means how cognitive an affair religion is for him. He takes Frazer and his like to task for rationalistic interpretation of traditional ritual. He pointed out that many religious practices are not generated by any views that one could censure or verify. He saw university educated intelligentsia of the west carriers of moral and spiritual corruption that had thrusted human civilization into a new dark age.
For Wittgenstein “Symbolism of Catholicism are wonderful beyond words. But any attempt to make it into a philosophical system is offensive. All religions are wonderful, even those of the most primitive tribes.” (Qtd in Kerr, 1986). Nothing of this sort could come out from an agnostic. Like mystics he rejects literalism and believes in symbolism. He seems to appreciate the transcendental unity of religions by emphasizing mystical core at the heart of them. Religion for him is deed and not theory. This was so for Buddha also and in fact mystics have seen religion as transformative therapeutic towards a good life. Like mystics he underscored nonanthropomorphic character of belief. God for him is not a thing, a being, a superbing, an existence.
No doubt can be entertained regarding Wittgenstein’s commitment to religion even if he didn’t deem himself pure enough to be called a religious man. He looked at every problem from religious point of view. He liked to call himself as ‘a truth seeker,’ and he had found it though one can’t claim that he had reached the peaks that advanced mystics have access to. “It strikes me that religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference, hence though it is belief and assessing life. It is passionately seizing hold of this interpretation.” If religion is a method of assessing life, it is in a way cognitive. If one takes it seriously it means one takes it to be truth of a certain kind. For Wittgenstein religion was a matter of life and death. He was not a phenomenologist observing it with a detachment of a scientist. He plunged passionately into God and found the treasure. He meant business when he talked about religion or philosophy. He had faith and learnt wisdom in the end, the wisdom of an Oriental sage who cultivates detachment. For him it is wisdom that he finds nowhere in his contemporary professors of philosophy doing sort of a work as appears in Mind that really counts. To conclude there is a path that bypasses language and thought for accessing that which really matters, for realization of what has been eternal quest for values. Wittgenstein has outlined this path that needs to be kept in mind while we ponder on the limits and approaches to linguistic representations. No confusion needs to be entertained in understanding Wittgenstein’ essentially religious/mystical outlook. He was not a great mystic but a great mystical philosopher. He had very few intense mystical experiences.
He often behaved in a way that is not expected from a mystic. Contemplating committing suicide, extreme agitated mind at times, sense of gloom that obsessed him are not the mark of a great mystic. He didn’t take himself to be a saint but had the saintly ideal of moral purity to which he tried to conform. However if religion or mysticism are centred on deeds or practice we can’t but see him as a great soul who renounced wealth, fame, amenities and other guises that self love takes. He did find for himself the truth he sought and for him indeed philosophy has been love of wisdom. He has more wisdom than faith which is passionless and that is a sign of maturity of religion. His fundamental stance can be expressed in few sentences that express a worldview that is hundred percent Hebraic and hundred percent mystical.
I conclude by quoting and commenting on these few sentences.
The problem of life is “seen in the disappearance of the problem.” This means that the answer is not known, but seen and need not be known as the problem doesn’t demand an answer as it disappears. In fact the question can’t be asked. Vanishing of the problem is only found through a way of knowing other than language. “To believe in God means to understand the question about the meaning of life” (NB:74).To believe in God means to understand that there is more than facts (NB:74). For him to pray is to think about the meaning of life. Further explaining the meaning of mystical prayer he says that “I can’t bend the happenings of the world to my will; I am completely powerless. I can only make myself independent of the world.”It is impossible to know God through what can be said. What one knows about God is that this world exists. To be outside the world means to be outside what can be put into words. “I am my world”(TLP:5.63). Atkinson beautifully explains it:
The separation between the thinker and the thought, or the eye and the object of sight, occurs in language, not in the event itself. Thus the idea of the personal self or subject in terms of a thinker of the thought among others. The subject is not a thing in the world and the thought one has of it does not correspond to a fact (Atkinson, 2009: 133).
The difference between seeing the object together with and in space and time is a matter of seeing the world from either the outside or the inside. From the outside it is to see the world like one’s eye in its visual field (NB:73). To see the object sub species aeternitatis from the outside is to see it from outside the world and language. Being outside language there is nothing that can be said about an object. Wittgenstein states that there are things that can’t be put into words. These things show themselves. They are the mystical. (TLP: 6.522) These things “don’t point to another world outside the world, but show themselves as the mystical.” The metaphysical interpretation of the Tractatus has been forcefully criticized by a host of scholars including Atkinson. The mystical is what one finds immediately in reality. What “can’t beput into words shows itself as the world that is and what shows itself must be coordinated with the solipsistic self in the moment of experience. This moment, I have argued, is to fell the world as a limited whole” (Atkinson, 2009: 69).
We need not advocate metaphysical interpretation and can remain contended with the fact that there is something that science can’t handle, there is a joy of the spirit available to a happy man who has consented to be nothing, the world is full of beauty, there are no problems and man’s hunger for higher things can be quenched. It hardly matters where we precisely locate transcendence that gives meaning to life and grounds ethics and aesthetics – beyond the world or immanently within its depths. Interpretations, theological and metaphysical ultimately can differ but what matters is what Wittgenstein achieves. He achieves the similar end that religions and mysticisms across traditions have sought. He gets the riddle dissolved and puts thoughts or philosophy to peace and that is the end of philosophical/mystical quest.
Atkinson, James R., The Mystical in Wittgenstein’s Early Writings, Routledge, London, 2009.
Johnson, Paul, Rethinking the inner, Rutledge, London, 1993,
Ibn ‘Arabî , 1972–91, al-Futûhât al-makkiyya, 14 volumes, O. Yahia (ed.), al-Hay’at al-Misriyyat al-‘Âmmali’l-Kitâb, Cairo. (Quotes and translations are mostly from Chittick and Chodkiewicz.)
Lazenby, Mark, The Early Wittgenstein on Religion, Continuum, 2006,
Kerr, Fergus, Theology after Wittgenstein, Balckwell, 1989,
McGuiness, Brian, “Mysticism of the Tractatus,”Philosophical Review, 75, 1966
Neili, Russel, From Mysticism to Ordinary Language Philosophy:A Study of Viennese Positivism and the Thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, SUNY, New York, 1987
Pradhan, R.C., Wittgenstein and the Metaphysics of Experience
Qaisar, Shahzad, Iqbal and KhawjaGhulamFarid on Experiencing God, Iqbal Academy, Lahore 2002.
Sontag, Fredrick, Wittgenstein and the Mystical: Philosophy as an Ascetic Practice, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Weil, Simone, 1970, First and Last Notebooks, tr. Richard Reese, Oxford University Press, New York. (Here in the text referred to as F).
……. ………..Waiting on God, 1951, tr. Emma Caruford, Putnam, New York, 1951 (referred as WG).
…………….. The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 1956, tr. Arthur F. Mills, 2 volumes, Putnam (referred as N).
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Notebooks, 1914-16, 2nd Edition Ed. Wright and Ascombe.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Culture and Value, G.H. von Wright (ed.), P. Winch (trans.), Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1980.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig,TractatusLogico-Philosophicus,D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (trans.), New York: Humanities Press, 1961.
Courtesy of : Muhammad Maroof Shah
Madhu Nath and His Performance
Try as I might, I cannot remember the first time I met Madhu Nath, the senior author of this volume. That I came to record his performance of Gopi Chand was initiated neither by me nor by him but by his relatives Nathu and Ugma Nathji—some of my closest associates during my residence in the Rajasthani village of Ghatiyali. Madhu, although born in Ghatiyali, settled many years ago in another nearby village, Sadara. Therefore, although he celebrated life cycle rituals among his kinfolk in Ghatiyali, and periodically performed there, he spent most of his time in Sadara. This accounts for my being unaware of him as a special person after over a year’s residence in Ghatiyali and a deep involvement with several households of his relatives there.
Because of manifold links between pilgrimage and death, I had been systematically recording “hymns” (bhajans ) sung on the eve of funeral feasts by the Nath caste and non-Nath participants in the sect which they led. I had grown increasingly interested in the Naths’ peculiar approach to death and the liberation of the soul (Gold 1988, 99–123). When Madhu was directly introduced to me as a singer, in January 1981, I was reminded that my bhajan recordings of April 1980 were made at hymn sessions, first for his son and then for his wife. I had actually attended both their funeral feasts. This latter significant connection was phrased as, “You ate his son’s and his wife’s nukti” —nukti being the little sugary fried balls that are one of the most characteristic foods of ceremonial village feasts (called nukta ). During these particular feasts I must have seen Madhu, as I have seen so many
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other hosts at dozens of similar events, harried and anxious to keep all his guests satisfied, with no time for casual conversations. Madhu always wore his pale red-orange turban tied low, almost hiding and also supporting the heavy yogis’ earrings that might otherwise have caught my attention.
My memorable and formal introduction to Madhu Nath took place over half a year later when, after six weeks in Delhi and Banaras, where I had been recuperating from hepatitis, I returned to Ghatiyali accompanied by Daniel Gold (then friend and colleague but not yet husband). Daniel, as a historian of religions researching the sant tradition in North India, had become interested in Ghatiyali’s Naths when I showed him the transcribed texts of their hymns—many of which had the signature (chhap ) of the poet-saint Kabir, and some of which employed the coded imagery common to Sant poetry (Gold 1987; Hess and Singh 1983).
Daniel expressed his desire to talk with persons learned in Nath traditions, and my research assistant Nathu Nath introduced to him several members of his family and sect. The last person he brought to us was Madhu, and that evening—Daniel’s last in the village—Madhu performed, and I duly recorded, Gopi Chand’s janmpatri or birth story. I was immediately intrigued and delighted: here was a living bard singing a story that was obviously about the same character as Temple’s Punjabi version, yet evidently startlingly different in certain prominent details. I recalled from Temple nothing about Gopi Chand’s being won as a boon by his mother’s ascetic prowess or borrowed from the yogi Jalindar. Yet these were the dominant elements that framed the plot of Madhu’s “Birth Story.”
Until that first evening with Madhu Nath I had largely confined my recordings of folklore to much briefer performances: women’s worship tales and songs, and men’s hymns. Yet now I felt compelled to obtain the whole story of Gopi Chand, despite its lack of direct relevance to my pilgrimage research, and the perceptible ticking away of my finite time in India. My recording sessions were not continuous; Madhu made a trip to Sadara to look after his fields when he had finished the “Birth Story” (in one night) and the “Journey to Bengal” (in two). Persuaded to return so that I could have the complete tale of Gopi Chand, he next gave me “Gopi Chand Begs from Queen
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Patam De,” which belongs chronologically between the segments on birth and Bengal, and “Instruction From Gorakh Nath”—the conclusion. Seven years later I returned to Rajasthan with the express purpose of recording from Madhu the tale of Gopi Chand’s maternal uncle, Bharthari of Ujjain. Despite the gap in time, the circumstances of the recording sessions in 1988 were not very different from those of 1981, except that the loudest crying baby on the second set of tapes belonged not to my host’s household or neighbors but to me.
In January 1981 when I came to know Madhu Nath he did not strike me as a man undone by loss and mourning, although in 1980 he had buried first one of his two sons and then his wife. The son had suffered a long and debilitating illness through which he was intensively and devotedly nursed by his mother. She had, I was told, kept herself alive only to serve her child and had not long outlived him. Accompanying this double personal loss, Madhu had incurred the great economic stress of sponsoring two funeral feasts. I saw others driven to or beyond the brink of nervous collapse by just such accumulated pressures.
Yet Madhu Nath was calm, confident of his power with words, always entertaining, and sometimes very humorous. Retrospectively, I wonder if he did not derive some of his solidity, following this very difficult period of his life, from the teachings of the stories that he told so well again and again—stories with the bittersweet message that human life is “a carnival of parting.” Another factor in his equilibrium could have been the Nath cult’s promise of release from the pain of endless rounds of death and birth, and thus certainty of his wife’s and son’s liberation.
It is also true, however, that I approached Madhu Nath as a source of art and knowledge rather than as a man who had recently suffered much grief. We never spoke of his family; indeed, we hardly exchanged any personal courtesies of the kind that constitute much of normal village social intercourse. Madhu teased me sometimes—making jokes at my expense during the spoken parts of his performance—but outside the performance itself we did not talk very much in 1981. In short, although he was a wonderfully expansive storyteller, Madhu seemed to me a reserved and veiled person.
I did not attempt to obtain even a sketchy life history from Madhu Nath until my 1988 visit. My experience then confirmed in part the intuition that our lack of personal relationship could be attributed to
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him as much as to me. My attempt at a life history interview rapidly degenerated, or evolved, into an illuminating session of “knowledge talk,” rich in myth but skimpy on biography. What follow here are the bare outlines of Madhu’s career as I gleaned them from that leisurely and rambling conversation, supplemented by a few inquiries made by mail through my research assistant Bhoju.
Madhu, a member of the Natisar lineage of Naths, was born in Ghatiyali, but in his childhood he was sent to live with an elder brother already residing in nearby Sadara. His brother was pujari or “worship priest” in Sadara’s Shiva temple. The thakur or local ruler of Sadara—and this would have been in the thirties when thakurs still ruled—came into possession of a pair of yogis’ earrings and took a notion to put them on somebody. Madhu, and other Naths who were listening to our conversation, concurred on the consistent if seemingly superficial interpretation that the Sadara thakur was endowed with great sauk (a term translatable as “passionate interest”) in such works. Perhaps more salient, they also suggested that enduring “fruits” (phal ) accrue to the one who performs such a meritorious act. And they offered as evidence the information that, even today, when independent India’s concerted attempts at land reform have greatly reduced the circumstances of Rajasthan’s former gentry, there is “nothing lacking” in the Sadara thakur’ s household.
Whether we see Madhu as beneficiary or victim of the thakur’ s sauk, the rationale for his becoming the recipient of these yogis’ earrings appears to have been more economic and social than spiritual. The landlord deeded some fertile farmland to Madhu’s family in exchange for cooperation on the family’s part. As for Madhu himself, he was young and clearly his head was turned by the attention he received in the ceremony, and the pomp with which it was conducted. Fifty years later he described to me with pleasure the feasts, the processions, and the “English band” that were for him the most impressive and memorable aspects of this function. He stated that, although two “Nath babajis” were called to be ritual officiants, he had no personal
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guru. For Madhu, his own ear-cutting seems to have been completely divorced from the kind of spiritual initiation with which it is consistently associated, not only in the tales he himself delivers but in other published accounts.
Nevertheless, this experience and its visible physical aftermath—the rings themselves—surely set Madhu apart from the other young men of his village world. Although Madhu did not state this in so many words, what he did make clear was that after the ritual he found himself restless and unsatisfied with the life of an ordinary farmer’s boy. His brother sent him out to graze the goats, but he felt this was “mindless work” (bina buddhi ka kam ) and quarreled with him. Evidently the economic fruits of Madhu’s ear-splitting were being reaped not by Madhu but by the senior male member of his household. The brother declined to support a non-goatherding Madhu; Madhu declined to herd goats. At this juncture, Madhu decided to set off on his own. As he put it, “There was no one to control me so I had a sarangi [the instrument he plays to accompany his performances] made by Ram Chandra Carpenter.” Madhu continued, “I rubbed it,”—meaning he did not know how to play properly—”and went to all the big feasts.”
Madhu then listed a number of events (weddings, holiday entertainments, and so forth) that he had attended in several villages where Naths performed their tales, both for their own caste society and at the request of other celebrating groups. In the course of these meanderings Madhu hooked up with his mother’s brother’s son, Sukha Nath, who was already an accomplished performer. Madhu began by informally accompanying and making himself useful to Sukha. Eventually they agreed on an apprenticeship. Madhu said, “I’ll go with you,” and Sukha said, “Come if you want to learn.” Madhu then sought permission from his grandmother in Ghatiyali, telling her—as he recalled it for me—”I’11 wash his clothes, I’ll serve him, I’ll live with him.”
Madhu appeared to remember the years of his discipleship fondly, and no doubt selectively. He described eating two meals a day of festive treats for weeks at a stretch when he and his cousin were commissioned to perform for relatively wealthy patrons. It was particularly at such special events—the only occasions when the stories are narrated from beginning to end rather than in fragments as is the usual custom—that he mastered Sukha Nath’s repertoire. This comprised the three epics Madhu himself performs: Gopi Chand, Bharthari, and the
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marriage of Shiva. Madhu also knows countless hymns and several shorter tales.
At a time that Madhu estimated to be about five years after he acquired the yogis’ earrings, he was married, eventually becoming the father of two sons. After his brother’s death, the Sadara property came fully into Madhu’s possession, as did the service at the Sadara Shiva temple. He seems then to have settled into a life divided between agricultural and priestly tasks in Sadara and exercise of his bardic art in a group of nine surrounding villages, including Ghatiyali.
Madhu Nath’s Performance
Members of the Nath caste in Madhu’s area of Rajasthan inherit and divide the right to “make rounds” (pheri lagan!a) and to collect grain donations, just as they do any other ancestral property. When a father’s right must be parceled out among several sons, they receive it as “turns.” The Rajasthani word for these turns is ausaro, but English “number” is also commonly used to refer to them. Of course, some who inherit the right to perform have no talent to go with it. For example, Madhu explained to us, when his cousin Gokul Nath’s “number” comes, Gokul seeks Madhu’s assistance and they make singing rounds together, for which Madhu receives a part of Gokul’s donations.
Besides what a performer collects while making rounds, designated Nath household heads also receive a regular biannual share of the harvest—called dharo —in the villages with which they are affiliated. In 1990 this share, for Ghatiyali’s Natisar Naths, amounted to two and one-half kilos of grain at both the spring and fall harvests from every landed household in eight villages. In Ghatiyali itself, where the Natisar Naths are landed residents, they do not collect dharo, although they receive donations on their performance rounds. Madhu explained that dharo was not allotted to Naths for singing, but rather for the “work” of removing locusts—a magical power that the caste claims. Nowadays, he concluded, they sing because there are no
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locusts, thanks to a governmental extermination program (clearly a mixed blessing for Naths).
It seems that performing Gopi Chand-Bharthari may have recently been transformed into an inherited right, in order to preserve the patron-client relationship founded on locust removal. By asking the kind of imaginative “what if” question that I always felt was too leading but from which we often learned the most, my assistant Bhoju elicited further support for this interpretation. What, he asked Madhu, would happen were he to practice his art in someone else’s territory? Would there be trouble? Madhu responded with a firm denial: “We jogi s make rounds; we could go as far as Udaipur. We are jogi s so no one could stop us.”
Twice a year, when it is his turn, Madhu Nath makes rounds in his nine villages. In any village on any given night, rather than remaining in a single location, he moves from house to house in the better-off neighborhoods, or temple to temple among the lower castes. At each site he sings and tells a short fragment of one of his lengthy tales—choosing what to sing according to the request of his patrons or his own whim.
Madhu is highly respected as a singer and storyteller of rich knowledge and skill who can move an audience to tears. His performance alternates regularly between segments of sung lines, accompanied by music which he plays himself on the sarangi —a simple stringed instrument played with a bow—and a prose “explanation” (arthav ). In this explanation he retells everything he has just sung, using more colorful, prosaic, and often vulgar language than he does in the singing. The spoken parts are performances or communicative events as clearly marked as the musical portions are. Whereas Madhu’s ordinary style of speaking is normally low-key and can seem almost muted, his arthav is always enunciated distinctly and projected vigorously. The arthav, moreover, often incorporates the same stock phrases and poetic conceits that occur in the singing.
During both my 1981 and 1988 recording sessions, Madhu was
usually accompanied by his surviving son, Shivji, who sang along in a much fainter voice that was prone to fade away when, presumably, he did not remember the words. However, there were some occasions—notably more in 1988—when Shivji carried the words and Madhu faltered. Shivji played no instrument and did not participate at all in the arthav .
As I worked on translating Madhu’s words, I replayed the tapes of his original performance. Inspired by Susan Wadley’s exemplary demonstrations and discussions of the ways an epic bard in rural Uttar Pradesh self-consciously employs various tunes and styles (Wadley 1989, 1991), I began to try, in spite of my musical illiteracy, to pay attention to Madhu’s use of “tune.” My initial impression of Madhu’s music had been that it was monotonous; what kept you awake was the story. This is partially but not wholly true. Compared to the bard Wadley describes, Madhu Nath’s range of musical variations seems limited; yet he does deliberately modulate emotional highlights of his story with shifts in melody and rhythm.
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Madhu uses two patterned tunes, which he calls rags , in Gopi Chand and two different ones in Bharthari, where he also recycles both Gopi Chand rags . All four melodic patterns are flexible in that although each engenders verbal verse patterns, the melodic patterns frequently and readily change to accommodate narrative needs. In what I call Gopi Chand rag 1, for example, each verse normally has three similar lines and one longer concluding one. Long narrative sequences, however, may repeat the short lines many more times than three before concluding. And for an emotional or dramatic climax the long concluding line may repeat once or even twice. The main rag identified with Bharthari begins with a prolonged Rajajiiiiii —”Honored King … “—that seems to signal the plaintive voice of the king’s abandoned wife. Part 1 of Bharthari is performed in a style different from any of the others, its melody less interesting and less emotional, that seems to me in keeping with its orientation to external action.
Ethnomusicologist David Roche (personal communication 1991) describes Madhu Nath’s musical style as one influenced by caste traditions but infused by new influences. He says that the melodic phrases are “pan-North Indian”—not particularly Rajasthani. Madhu Nath’s musical style is, according to Roche, a “contemporary bhajan style” reflecting the influence of regional religious dramas and mythological films. Roche finds Madhu’s music historically influenced by the harmonium—an instrument introduced to India by Christian missionaries from the West in the late nineteenth century and soon passionately adapted to Hindu devotional singing. This influence is apparent to Roche in Madhu’s “intonation and diatonicism, with emphasis on major and mixolydian mode tetrachords.” Although Madhu uses no harmonium—nor do other Rajasthani Nath epic performers I have met—many of Madhu’s relatives and caste-fellows in and around Ghatiyali participate in bhajan -singing groups regularly accompanied by harmoniums.
That Madhu employs the term rag to refer to the melodies he plays probably represents a folk usage rather than a significant link to Indian classical traditions. Once Madhu told Bhoju that he “always” sang in asavari rag , a named rag within the classical system. Because I was hearing four distinctive melodies, I hoped that Madhu had a name for each of them. I made clips from the tapes and sent this “sampler” back to the village with Bhoju. Bhoju wrote, “I took that
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rag tape and listened to it with Madhu Nath, Shivji Nath, Ugma Nath, and Nathu all together, but no one could tell a particular name of the rags .” Rather, the assembled Naths used labels such as “the melody of rounds” (pheri ko rag ) or “Gopi Chand’s melody” (Gopi Chand ko rag ). This seems to confirm Roche’s suggestion that Madhu’s music is not to be labeled among any fixed traditional systems but rather is part of a creative synthesis continually emerging in North Indian folk music.
It is widely acknowledged that any folk performance situation is a dynamic, interactive event, and this statement certainly describes Rajasthani performances in general and Madhu Nath’s in particular. I shall examine the several ways in which Madhu and his audience sustain this dynamic during individual performances. Before doing so, however, I wish to suggest some broader contextual factors that contribute to these occasions but are more diffuse and difficult to pinpoint.
Rajasthan’s regional culture includes a rich and diverse body of living oral performance traditions. These enliven a daily existence that may be both monotonous and laborious. On the one hand, an urban Westerner like myself, landed in a place like Ghatiyali, is overwhelmed by the abundance of festivals, rituals, all-night singing sessions, storytelling, and other lesser and greater artistic and communicative events; during my first months in the village I often felt that I was feasting at a perpetual banquet of live music and theater, with no tickets required. On the other hand, in 1979 81 the villagers had no TVs and few radios or tape recorders, while the nearest cinema was a costly three-hour journey distant. Any performance event punctuated the humdrum grind of labor-intensive agriculture.
Nath performance traditions must be viewed within this cultural frame: they exist as one genre in a wealth of related genres; they also exist as valued entertainment in a society not yet made blasé by multiple media. Rural Rajasthani society, moreover, venerates religious experts and accords recognition to many from different ranks and with varying sectarian affiliations. Like most of the region’s popular folk traditions, Madhu Nath’s performances meshed with his audience’s twin passions for entertainment and enlightenment. Although Madhu himself protests that his stories are not siska , or
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“instruction,” audience members claim that they are. The Nath tales are not unique, nor are they the most highly prized of performances available to Rajasthani villagers. Yet they have a welcome and secure place in the annual round.
Madhu Nath at times refers to the entire tale of Gopi Chand or Bharthari as a byavala , a term that one dictionary defines as a god’s wedding song (Platts 1974). Before returning to Rajasthan in 1987 I speculated that both tales might be so described because they were somehow anti-wedding songs. However, as I was to learn, a third long narrative in Madhu Nath’s repertoire is “The Wedding Song of Lord Shiva” (Sivji ka byavala ); it seems clear that he has named the others accordingly. Most villagers do not use the term byavala to refer to Madhu Nath’s performances and often simply call them varta . This label reveals their kinship with other epic tales of Rajasthani herogods whose singing and recitation may be called varta , too.
According to the sensible, informed, and flexible definitions proffered in the recent important volume Oral Epics in India , the Bharthari-Gopi Chand tales fall beyond doubt in the epic genre. Epics in general are characterized as narrative, long, heroic, and sung (Blackburn and Flueckiger 1989, 2–4; Wadley 1989, 76). In the South Asian context, Blackburn and Flueckiger suggest, the quality “heroic” may be understood in three distinct ways. An epic may exhibit martial, sacrificial, or romantic heroism. Both the martial and sacrificial types “turn on themes of revenge, regaining lost land, or restoring lost rights,” and stress “group solidarity”—all of which would apply to other Rajasthani epic-length tales. Romantic epics, by contrast, “celebrate individual actions that threaten that solidarity” (1989, 4–5). Clearly the tales of Bharthari and Gopi Chand belong in the “romantic” category if they belong anywhere. Yet our heroes are hardly traditional, undaunted lovers.
It might seem that the tales celebrate individual action that threatens group solidarity, but as I will discuss in more detail in the afterword, yogis gain nothing from a damaged social order. Rather, they maneuver for an intact social order that supports yogis. What then makes these tales romantic? Unless we consider them as stories of the union between guru and disciple, Bharthari and Gopi Chand are romances of parting. The theme of love in separation is a pervasive
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one in Indian literature. Longing for an absent lover—whether soldier, ascetic, or clerk in the city—has inspired much poetry on mortal love (Kolff 1990; Vaudeville 1986; Wadley 1983), as well as an entire genre of devotional expression. But most literature inspired by love in separation suggests at least a movement toward, or the possibility of, future reunion. Bharthari and Gopi Chand, by contrast, continuously and irrevocably move farther and farther from their loved ones. Madhu Nath’s performances of Bharthari and Gopi Chand can be styled romantic epics celebrating separation rather than union, if we keep clearly in mind that the separation they establish is eternal.
One factor distinguishing these stories from many others heard by villagers is that, although sung and told in the local dialect, they are not indigenous to Rajasthan—a matter I will deal with more extensively in chapter 3, where I attempt to trace their origins. Gopi Chand and Bharthari have been incorporated into Rajasthani traditions, and Rajasthani traditions have been incorporated into them. But these Nath tales are not self-defining epics that contribute to the identity of a regional culture—the kind of tales that people call “ours” (Blackburn et al., eds. 1989; Flueckiger 1989). Indeed, for Rajasthani farmers, Gopi Chand and Bharthari are stories of the exotic, in two senses. First, they are about other lands; second, they are about world-renouncers.
That Gopi Chand and Bharthari were understood in some ways as alien was brought home to me very strongly in 1988 when I asked some village men if they would want to be like Bharthari or Gopi Chand, and some village women if they would like their husbands or sons to emulate those figures. An almost universal answer from both sexes was “No, I wouldn’t have the courage.” Although some renouncers encountered and interviewed in temples spontaneously referred to Gopi Chand or Bharthari as exemplary in their capacity for tyag , or “relinquishment,” no ordinary persons held them up as role models.
There is a real difference between my “induced” performances
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of both tales and the performances that most villagers hear twice a year when Madhu makes his rounds. They hear fragments, and often their favorite fragments are repeated from year to year. People’s understanding may be limited by lack of familiarity with the whole story. Most of those whom Bhoju or I questioned were easily able to retell the most popular episodes from both tales. Few villagers, however, had heard either tale from beginning to end from Madhu, although a number had seen theatrical performances at religious fairs. Several members of leatherworker castes (regar and chamar ) claimed to know very little about the stories; one complained that when Madhu came to his neighborhood he only spoke “a few lines” and left again.
My own experience of immediate audience reactions to the performances of Gopi Chand and Bharthari is limited to the context of the event which I sponsored, for I never observed Madhu “making rounds” (although he was recorded doing so by my colleague Joseph Miller). In the setting of my performance the responses were quite limited. After three or four hours of listening, until well past midnight, we would usually hurry home when Madhu ended his singing. Indeed, he often closed a night’s session by saying to me, “Now go to bed.”
Madhu Nath’s Stories in Synopsis
It has been said of at least one Indian epic—and may be true of most—that no one ever hears it for the first time. Western readers, who have not participated from childhood in the culture that produces these stories, may need a “pony.” Throughout these introductory chapters I often talk about events and characters in Madhu Nath’s versions of Bharthari and Gopi Chand. Therefore, as points of reference for those citations, I offer skeletal plot summaries in advance, segmented and ordered according to Madhu Nath’s performance as it is translated in this book (see also figs. 4 and 5).
Bharthari’s “Birth Story” (part 1) describes how his father was cursed by his own father to enter a donkey’s womb. The donkey suc-
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4. Family relationships in the tales of King Gopi Chand and King Bharthari.
ceeds after lengthy efforts in marrying a princess and founding a city, Dhara Nagar, where his three offspring—Bharthari, Vikramaditya, and Manavati—are born.
In part 2, Bharthari is king of Dhara Nagar and married to Queen Pingala. He rides out hunting and kills a stag, whose seven hundred fifty does, widowed, curse King Bharthari that his women will weep in the Color Palace as they do in the jungle. They then hurl themselves on the dead buck’s antlers and thus commit sati . Bharthari wonders if his own wife is equally devoted. He sends her a handkerchief soaked in deer’s blood with the message that he is dead. Pingala knows this is a test but decides to die anyway. Bharthari has other adventures in the forest but eventually returns home to find Pingala a heap of ashes. He goes mad with remorse, until the yogi guru Gorakh Nath arrives, demonstrates the illusory nature of life and death, and finally restores Pingala to the king.
Part 3 finds Bharthari sleepless and unsatisfied. Convinced that nothing in the fluctuating world matters, he abandons his wife and renounces his throne to seek initiation from Gorakh, who sends him back to the palace to beg alms from Pingala and call her “Mother.”
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5. Nath guru-disciple lineages in the tales of King Gopi Chand and King Bharthari.
She reproaches him but gives the alms. This difficult task accomplished, Bharthari returns to Gorakh Nath’s campfire.
Gopi Chand’s “Birth Story” (part 1) opens with Manavati (Bharthari’s sister, married into “Gaur Bengal”) instructing her only son, Gopi Chand: “Be a yogi.” She then reveals in a long flashback how she obtained the boon of a son from Lord Shiva although no son was written in her fate. In order not to break his promise, Shiva allows her to borrow one of the yogi Jalindar Nath’s disciples, and she chooses Gopi Chand. The loan has a limit: after twelve years of ruling the kingdom, Gopi Chand must become a yogi or die. As a wandering ascetic, however, he will gain immortality. Gopi Chand, possessing eleven hundred wives and sixteen hundred slave girls, is not pleased with his mother’s bargain.
In part 2 Gopi Chand tries to get rid of the guru by putting him down a well. But it is Gopi Chand who dies, and only the power of yogis saves him. Restored to his palace, he follows his mother’s instructions and has his ears cut by Jalindar. The guru then sends him to beg alms from Queen Patam De, his chief wife, and to call her “Mother.” Although Patam De finally fills his alms bowl, when her mother-in-law literally twists her arm, Jalindar has to rescue Gopi Chand from the palace, where he is surrounded by weeping women.
Against his mother’s and guru’s advice, Gopi Chand heads for Dhaka in Bengal to say goodbye to his sister, Champa De Rani (part 3). On the way he is harassed by seven lady magicians who transform him into various animals and abuse him. Jalindar sends a party of yogis to rescue him but it fails. The guru himself then accompanies
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a second group, which succeeds. Gopi Chand proceeds to his sister’s; she dies of grief in his arms but is brought back to life by Jalindar. Gopi Chand spends some happy time with her and then leaves alone.
In part 4 a dispute arises between,Jalindar’s disciple Kanni Pavji and Gorakh Nath. Kanni Pavji tells Gorakh that his guru, Machhindar Nath, is enjoying women and lathering sons in Bengal; Gorakh tells Kanni Pavji that his guru,Jalindar, is at the bottom of a well. Gorakh goes to Bengal and rescues Machhindar, destroying his wives and sons along the way. Gorakh then brings seven species of locusts out of the well, tricks, Jalindar into giving immortality to Gopi Chand and Bharthari, and convinces him to emerge. All the great yogis then feast one another. At Gorakh Nath’s “wish-feast” Kanni Pavji’s disciples wish for improper foods and are degraded.
Madhu Nath’s Performances for Me
It is winter. We assemble in that part of the Rajasthani village house called a pol —a covered entranceway wide enough to form a room that lies between street and courtyard, often with raised platforms on either side for storage or sitting. This area is a shady breezeway in the summer and a shelter in the winter. By the time we gather there after the evening meal it is already dark and slightly chilly. Everyone, male and female, has wrapped a shawl or blanket over his or her usual daily attire. In the center of the pol is a small fire of dry sticks that burns low, even its frugal warmth a luxury in this wood-impoverished region.
In January 1981 I had already lived fifteen months in the village, but recording Madhu Nath was my first experience as performance patron. I received a quick education in how to fulfill this role with appropriate liberality. I must supply the singer and his son with a “bundle of biris”—biris being harsh, leaf-wrapped cigarettes smoked by almost all males who have not taken a vow of abstinence. I must treat performers and audience to tea each night, which involved purchasing tea leaves, sugar, and milk in advance—the last item not always easy to buy in the evening. In addition, a quarter- or half-kilo of gur , unrefined brown sugar, was indispensable. The singers required gur to soothe their throats (Madhu had an awful cough, which did not deter him from relishing the biris ). A generous patron should pass small lumps of gur round to all the listeners once or twice in the course of an evening.
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At the beginning of our recording sessions my comprehension of the sung segments of Madhu’s performance was very limited. How pleased I was to benefit from the custom of arthav or explanation, in which Madhu repeated everything he had sung and elaborated on much of it. During the arthav , members of the audience who have passively listened to the sung portions are more actively engaged by a vital performer. A formalized element of performer-audience interaction in Rajasthan is the part played by the hunkar . A hunkar , which can only be awkwardly glossed as someone who makes the sound hun —a kind of affirmative grunt—is a standard feature of any storytelling event, from women’s worship stories to men’s informal anecdotes.
At first I thought the hunkar ‘s function was to offer a perfunctory reassurance to the performer that at least one person was really listening. Given the distracting surroundings of many village performances—often including clamorous childern and simultaneous competing activities—such assurance may indeed be needed. However, after being pressed more than once into fulfilling this role myself (which my frequent misunderstandings at times made me bumble or fake quite awkwardly), I began to perceive that a good hunkar can elicit a tale-teller’s enthusiasm whereas a poor one can discourage a full telling.
A hunkar ‘s responses can shape the performance content as well as its quality. This too I learned from personal experience. On relistening to my tapes it was evident to me that when I played hunkar to Madhu, if he was in a generous mood, his arthav was noticeably changed: he used more standard Hindi (versus Rajasthani) vocabulary; he explained cultural phenomena he thought I might not understand; he glossed terms he suspected I was failing to grasp. For example, to my uncertain grunt following the line “Gopi Chand ruled the kingdom,” he added, “Gopi Chand ruled, like Indira Gandhi rules.”
The opposite case, a situation far more comfortable if sometimes less educational for me, would be when someone who knew the story well acted as hunkar . That person might even supply key lines if Madhu seemed to be dallying before giving them. During climaxes other audience members chimed in, adding their bit to the hunkar ‘s own responses, which also became less perfunctory. Thus when King Bharthari surveys the seven hundred fifty magically created look-alike Queen Pingalas—a vision both awesome and slightly comical—a number of spontaneous commentators (audible on the tape but only selectively included by the scribe) added their exclamations to the
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hunkar ‘s: “They looked just alike, all seven hundred and fifty!” Their faces were exactly the same!”
Madhu deliberately evoked audience participation by identifying persons in the story with persons in the audience. One way he did this was by caste. For example, when Jalindar Nath’s disciples arrive in Bengal they encounter a gardener. Since there was a man of the gardener caste in the audience, Madhu named the gardener in the story with his name. Besides naming story characters after audience members, Madhu sometimes named audience members after story characters. Thus throughout the Gopi Chand performances he gently teased a younger relative by calling him “Charpat Nath” after one of the powerful yogi figures. This stuck, so that when Bhoju or I met that young man outside the storytelling context, we would call him Charpat.
The entire performance of Gopi Chand took five recording sessions, each from three and one-quarter to four and one-half hours long; it filled the better part of eleven 90-minute cassettes—or over sixteen hours of tape. Each night’s session was broken up by short intervals of batchit (conversation), during which the recorder was shut down, usually following the arthav and preceding a new sung section, but sometimes coming between singing and arthav . During one of the breaks strong sweet tea would be passed round and eagerly swallowed, its caffeine and warmth both welcome.
The first part, the “Birth Story,” was recorded in its entirety on 24 January 1981. It took two sessions, on the nights of 26 and 27 January, to record the whole “Journey to Bengal” episode. This was followed by a twelve-day hiatus in our recording (during which much transcription and translation work went forward). Madhu then performed “Gopi Chand Begs from Queen Patam De” on the night of 9 February and “Instruction from Gorakh Nath” on 10 February.
When I returned to Ghatiyali at the end of 1987, after an interlude of almost eight years, it was in order to record Madhu Nath’s version of the tale of Bharthari, and my arrival was no surprise. I had written well in advance to Nathu and Bhoju. There were several surprises in store for me, however—one so serendipitous that, looking back, it seems like a most improbable stroke of fate. The very aged mother of
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Nathu Nath, my former research assistant, had died. His caste had decided to hold a major funeral feast to which Naths from villages all over the area were invited. Because this feast coincided almost exactly with the time I had to spend in Ghatiyali, it was certain that Madhu would be there, and not in Sadara as I had feared. It also presented a remarkable opportunity for Daniel Gold and me to meet many knowledgeable Naths. Much of my understanding of that caste’s identity, presented in chapter 2, is the result of our conversations with Nathu’s guests.
Word circulated among those attending the funeral feast that a foreigner was interested in their verbal art, and their caste lore in general. Several groups of strangers knocked at my door, a number of whom announced their capability and willingness to perform Gopi Chand-Bharthari. Even Nathu, who seemed to be annoyed with Madhu for reasons that never became clear to me, strongly suggested that I should record someone else’s version. But I held out for Madhu, feeling that the continuity of my translation project required the same bard and that all these other potential singers presented an almost frightening distraction.
It was out of the question to record in Nathu’s house, as we had in 1981, because the rooms were virtually overflowing with guests and all seating and tea-making resources were seriously overtaxed. Instead, we spread a carpet on the newly plastered courtyard of the Rajput house that had been my home in 1979–81 and was my camp this trip. We thus had cloistered Rajput women in the audience, and I was able to compensate for an old injury done to my former landlady. She had been angry with me eight years ago for not inviting and escorting her to the Gopi Chand sessions. Now she was able to savor Bharthari in the comfort of her own home.
Again, it was winter and we wrapped ourselves in shawls, savored our tea breaks, and sucked on gur . Madhu’s performance got off to a somewhat slow start; Bharthari’s birth story has more repetition in it than any other segment of either text. But soon Madhu warmed to his themes. His rendition of the central part of Bharthari—containing the best-loved climax when the king madly circles Pingala’s pyre—was perfectly delightful and aroused much audience appreciation. Besides myself, Daniel, and our two inattentive sons, our gathering always included my research assistant Bhoju; my landlady; her daughter-in-law, grandchildren, and nieces; and a variable number
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of neighbors and friends, who wandered in by plan or chance. Nathu, immersed in the work of the funeral feast, was unable to attend.
Madhu completed Bharthari’s tale in three recording sessions held on the nights of 28, 29, and 30 December 1987. This represents approximately eight hours of recording, filling five and one-half 90-minute tapes. On the whole, the performance atmosphere for Bharthari was very similar to that for Gopi Chand eight years before, with only a few perceptible differences. Madhu’s cough seemed a little worse; Shivji’s singing seemed a little better; Bhoju was the hunkar most of the time and played his part vigorously.
Translation in Practice and Theory
Toward the conclusion of part I of Madhu Nath’s Gopi Chand, Manavati Mother has at last won the boon of a son. She goes to select from among the yogi Jalindar Nath’s fourteen hundred visible disciples the one that pleases her the most; then Jalindar will loan him to her by having him reborn as her child. But until she spots beautiful Gopi Chand, the queen is far from delighted with her prospects as she scans the meditating yogis. Her words—as Madhu Nath narrated them and I recorded them in 1981—were as follows: “What will I do with such bearded fellows? What will I do with such twisted limbs, or ones like this who don’t even understand speech (boli hi na hamjai )? What will I do with them?”
When Madhu Nath thus elaborated the queen mother’s expressions of distaste there was laughter among our small company—laughter that was dutifully noted in parentheses by Nathu Nath when he transcribed the recording. Why was there laughter? Because, as Madhu enunciated “those who don’t even understand speech,” he gestured toward me. True to his characterization of me as uncomprehending, although I laughed along with the rest, I did not catch this quick jest at my expense. I thought we were laughing at the images of yogis as unattractive, defective persons not likely to make it in the world. But Bhoju, my research assistant, explained Madhu’s jibe to me, as kindly as possible, when we read the transcribed text together a week or so later and the scene was still fresh in his memory. Over the words “those who don’t even understand speech” I penciled “like Ain-Bai,” my village name (this third-person notation symptomatic I suppose of self-alienation common in fieldwork experience), and soon forgot about it.
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Six years later, as I embarked on a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship that centered on the Gopi Chand tale, I rediscovered Madhu’s little “joke” and paused to ponder this characterization of me—a confident, well-funded translator and published ethnographer—as someone who didn’t even “understand speech.” It brought to my mind a moment described in the preface to my book on pilgrimage: my first evening in the company of Bhoju Ram Gujar, the young village man who was later to become my closest assistant, pilgrimage brother, and eventually coauthor. During this night he had excited and tired us both by steadily imparting to me in lucid grammatical Hindi the mystical and multiple meanings of esoteric Rajasthani hymns as they were being performed during an intense all-night singing party celebrating the new benign identity of a restless ghost.
When it became apparent to this young man, around two or three in the morning, that I was exhausted and had ceased to absorb his explanations, he chided me by quoting a Rajasthani saying. “For you,” he said, “all this is ‘brown sugar for a deaf-mute’ (gunge ka gur ).” Steeped as I was in the rich village world, consuming its sweets but unable to hear its language clearly, where would I find the tongue to tell of it? In my published preface I exclaim, “What a perfect metaphor for the anthropological enterprise!” (Gold 1988, xiv). This metaphor, simultaneously evoking inexpressible delight and human disability, seems equally applicable to the efforts of translation—especially the translation of a multidimensional, interactive communicative event into a linear, soundless, printed story. In the remaining pages of this chapter I examine the phases of my translation efforts, returning in the end to some other metaphors—of hopelessness and possibility.
The first round of translation for Gopi Chand was certainly the most enjoyable. During February and March 1981 except for two short trips, each of a few days’ duration, to wrap up loose ends in my pilgrimage research, and the usual distractions of festivals, rituals, and the interpersonal psychodramas that I had finally come to accept as part of village life, my time and attention were remarkably centered on the recordings and rapidly emerging written text of Gopi Chand.
I employed both Nathu Nath and Bhoju Gujar full time during this period. Ugma Nathji, nonliterate but more knowledgeable than Nathu in his caste’s teachings, was also often on the scene. We worked in two neighboring rooms, each opening on the same courtyard but not adjoining the other, as was the architectural custom in the village. Nathu (with or without Ugma Nath) would sit in one room, listening
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to tapes and transcribing Madhu’s words with painstaking accuracy. In the other room Bhoju and I sat side by side at a small desk doing our “translation work” (anuvad ka kam )—as we explained it in most unsatisfactory fashion to the many skeptical questioners who wondered how we passed our days. This work involved reading through the pages Nathu had transcribed and stopping everywhere I had a problem with the Rajasthani. Bhoju would then endeavor to clarify my confusions with explanations and glosses in Hindi. I made notes in pencil directly on the transcription, in an ad hoc mixture of English and Hindi.
Occasionally, when confronted by something extremely puzzling, we would resort to the nine-volume Rajasthani Sabad Kos (Lalas 196–278; hereafter RSK ) with its ponderous definitions in Sanskritized Hindi. Far more often I just wrote the meanings of words as Bhoju dictated them to me. Sometimes he embellished his verbal descriptions with sketches, demonstrating, for example, the design of a kind of earring or the shape of a particular clay pot.
In midafternoon scribe and translators all took a long tea break together and often talked and joked in terms of the stories and the bard’s language. If Nathu, whose caste identity was Nath or Yogi, had to go somewhere, Bhoju would recite the bard’s favorite couplet: “A seated yogi’s a stake in the ground but a yogi once up is a fistful of wind.” Gossiping about the passion of an illicit lover when aroused by his woman, Nathu might say, “It was just as if a wick were lit to one hundred maunds of gunpowder”—parroting the bard’s stock metaphor for Gopi Chand’s emotional crises. Thus the text’s special language merged as I learned it with everyday life.
I had not the slightest sense of what I would do with the results of all this effort. But I found the protracted routinized translation work to be very soothing. It filled my days and kept my mind from dwelling on all the things I would never be able to finish, or even begin, as time ran out. Inevitably but nonetheless abruptly, when we were but a few pages into part 4, I at last had to leave Ghatiyali. I did not spend any time with the text again until 1987—six years later. The summary of Gopi Chand’s story, which I included in my dissertation (Gold 1984) and ensuing book (Gold 1988) as well as in the article that I coauthored with my husband (Gold and Gold 1984), was done from memory. As I discovered to my chagrin when I did return to the text, it contains a few errors, the result of my imperfect compre-
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hension and memory lapses, combined with Madhu’s occasional vagueness. For example, I stated in that summary that Jalindar Nath rescues Gopi Chand from Death’s Messengers; actually it is Gorakh Nath who, after taunting Jalindar with the news that his given disciple is dead, frees Gopi Chand so dramatically.
The second round of translation work, still only for Gopi Chand, began in 1987 when, supported by a Mellon Foundation Fellowship at Cornell University, I sat daily at a computer with Nathu’s transcription in my lap and typed directly onto the screen a rough and literal English version. I never lifted a dictionary during this stage but worked entirely from my own knowledge of the language and Bhoju’s glosses that I had jotted down six years earlier. By late summer 1987 I had a 250-page double-spaced English typescript. The last 80 pages were by far the roughest since they covered the final segment that I had never read through with Bhoju. I think of this as the “reading-for-meaning” phase of my translation. At this point I felt I had a full understanding of the story and wrote several interpretive essays (Gold 1989, 1991).
Convinced, however, that nothing I said about Gopi Chand’s story would be fully valid unless I knew Bharthari’s as well, I made plans to return to Rajasthan over winter break 1987–88. During that hectic six-week trip I had nothing comparable to the earlier daily routine of eight or nine hours in which I used to sit peacefully reading with Bhoju. I did manage to go over and solve most of the problems encountered in part 4 of Gopi Chand. Although I set the transcription process in motion for Bharthari, I left the village with only twelve pages on paper. Nathu completed the rest after my departure; Bhoju made interlinear notes in red ink and forwarded it to me.
Later still (from June through September 1989) supported by an NEH translation grant, I entered yet another phase, during which I relistened to all the tapes. The tapes made me aware of nuances of meaning totally lost in transcription and helped me to relive interactive dimensions of the performance in which I had participated but which I had forgotten during my subsequent fixation on the story. As Madhu’s wonderfully gruff and expressive voice, or his minor-key melodic sarangi riffs filled my ears, and I stared at fiat words on the grey shrunken screen, I despaired over the inadequacy of all translation.
While my ethnographic self retreated, stymied, I became obsessed
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with definitions. During these months I compulsively read dictionaries, searching for every word I did not “know”—a category arbitrarily comprising every word for which I was relying solely on Bhoju’s glosses—in a series of dictionaries (Rajasthani-Hindi, Hindi-Hindi, Hindi-English as required). I made alphabetical lists with cross-references. Words that I found in none of these references, or whose dictionary definitions did not coincide with Bhoju’s, I listed, and every month letters filled with these queries flew back to India. Bhoju often consulted Madhu himself or Madhu’s son, Shivji, before responding.
Toward the end of this unpleasant and laborious period, another translator and I were able to bring Bhoju to America. I had the uncanny experience of sitting in my Ithaca office, subzero temperatures outside, with a village voice in my ears. By then my involvement in these stories and the tradition that generated them extended beyond firsthand ethnographic experience; I had read numerous variants from other regions and times and was working out my interpretations. No longer did I passively take dictation from Bhoju; occasionally I found myself arguing with him.
When Gopi Chand’s wife reproaches him for becoming a yogi, she says: “Grain-giver, I taste bitter to you, but you think that yogi’s just swell. He shoved a loincloth up your ass and put these earrings on you. He pierced your ears and put these great big earrings in them.” In the village in 1981 Bhoju told me that the word the queen used for “earring” meant “yogis’ earring” because of course that’s what she was referring to—the yogis’ earrings her husband wore. But the word itself, muraka , refers to a small earring worn by ordinary men. It is not one of the several special words for yogis’ earrings, most often called darsai or “divine visions.” I thought the queen was being deliberately disrespectful by using this word, as she surely was about the loincloth up the ass—employing a crude term for anus. Bhoju, however, said she was just an ignorant woman who didn’t know the right word for yogis’ earring.
Later in the scene Gopi Chand calls on his guru for help and threatens that if the guru doesn’t come he’ll go back to taking care of his kingdom and get rid of his “earrings-and-stuff”—calling them murakyan vurakan —thus further exaggerating the queen’s disparaging terminology. The echo-word formation readily implies “earrings and all the rest of this yogic paraphernalia.” To me it seems to confirm
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Gopi Chand’s interpretation of the queen’s language, adopted when he is momentarily swept over to her perspective (and I see him as constantly backsliding thus from a yogic to a householder’s viewpoint). The bard is quite unlikely to have used the wrong word by accident as he himself wears these “divine visions” and is extremely conscious of their special power. Bhoju was still not convinced.
I relate this dispute because it reveals nicely how much of a translator’s problem lodges not so much in words but in contexts. To translate muraka as yogis’ earring—even though that is what it refers to—would be simply wrong. But to translate it as “earring” also leaves something out: the fact that it is the wrong word for the type of earring referred to. Any solution to such moments must transact a compromise between fluidity and semantics. As is no doubt too often the case, I resorted here to a footnote where I gave both sides of the argument.
Eventually I arrived at the most challenging and vexing task: to take the repetitive, awkwardly phrased, but reasonably accurate product of all this labor and transform it into something palatable, pleasurable, charming. After all, Madhu’s performance was all those things. I no longer feel quite deaf and dumb, but what I have to offer is not exactly brown sugar. My first decision was to use the written word and the printed page traditionally. I respect and admire the groundbreaking efforts of Dennis Tedlock (1983) and Elizabeth Fine (1984) among others, who have tried to develop innovative ways of putting oral performances on paper. Yet I myself find it difficult to enjoy their productions aesthetically. Such devices as uneven type sizes, slanting lines, and coded symbols do provide a far better record of oral performance than plain linear print. But as access to an aesthetic experience, for me at least, they fail. My immediate reaction to uneven type and arcane symbols is an almost automatic blurring or skimming impulse rather than transformed awareness. Whether this is common or idiosyncratic I do not know. In any case, I have taken a different route.
Surrendering music and largely surrendering audience interaction, in a sense I gave up on sustaining an oral mode; readers will have to supply that from my descriptions and their own imaginations. What I tried to reproduce is the rough charm and spontaneous flow of Madhu’s speech, without falsely embellishing it. The fourth round was literally countless rounds, for I could not say how many times I went over the English version, rearranging, rewording, and cutting.
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Eventually I had to make substantial cuts, by which something is certainly lost, but much is gained for all but the most patient English readers.
I cut in three ways, or at three levels. On the grossest of these, I made the decision —after translating the entire performance — to omit the sung portions except for those that open and close each of the seven parts of the two epics. A few other maverick segments of sung text slipped in because they advance the plot significantly with no spoken explanation covering the same ground. Normally, however, the explanation gives all that was sung and more. The singing does not present beautiful poetry; it lacks rhyme and its meter is strongly subordinated to the sarangi rags . The pleasure in it, I have come to believe, both from discussions with Madhu’s audience and from my own experience, is largely musical. But the pleasure of the arthav is intentionally verbal—and is therefore a pleasure much more easily translatable to the printed page.
The second level of cutting involved condensing most of a particular scene when it replicated almost exactly another that was fully translated. Such scenes are limited. The biggest reduction from the original involved the encounter between a begging yogi and a group of slave girls that occurs once in Bharthari and three times in Gopi Chand. Of these four instances, two were substantially condensed as noted within the text. Another highly repetitive moment is the contest between yogis and lady magicians; I gave Gopi Chand’s initial encounter fully but condensed whenever possible, and so noted, the subsequent encounters between Charpat Nath, followed by Hada Nath, and their Bengali enemies.
The third level of cutting is the one that makes me as a folklorist most uneasy, but its execution may contribute most to making this text generally accessible. This is the excision of innumerable internal repetitions—repetitions that give the oral performer time to think, that give his audience time to take it all in, but that on the printed page become rapidly tedious. My aim was to retain enough of these to leave the English with a colloquial, oral “flavor,” but to remove enough to keep the story moving at an acceptable pace.
Let me give an example, from the opening scene of Gopi Chand. The queen has just told her son to be a yogi, and he is questioning her knowledge of yoga. My translation in this book is as follows:
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Then Gopi Chand said, “But mother, you live in purdah inside the palace, and yogis live in the jungle. They do tapas by their campfires in the jungle. But you live in the palace. So, how did you come to know any yogis?”
Madhu Nath’s original speech translated word for word goes like this:
Then Gopi Chand said, “Oh, Manavati Mata, you live in purdah inside the palace and a yogi, yogis, they live in the jungle. They live in the jungle performing tapas by their campfires, and you stay in the palace, so how did you come to know yogis? How do you know them? Yogis live in the jungle, in the woods. And you live inside the palace, so how did you get to know them, you?”
I think this example speaks for itself, and it is perfectly typical.
The act of translation is often enough metaphorically maligned, in images that include the translator as executioner, bigamist, and traitor. Fortunately, more benign images also exist. Perhaps the most pleasing of these, especially to an anthropologist steeped in notions of empathy, is that of the translator as friend, sharer, intimate—evoked by Kelly, who cites Rosecommon’s seventeenth-century essay. Kelly writes of a “sharing between friends” that is “not merely informational: friends add to the information they share, a joy in the act of recounting it and a vicarious sharing of each other’s experience on terms special to the friendship” (Kelly 1979, 63).
If part of a positive vision of translation is intimacy, another part is craftsmanship. Yet it is just such praiseworthy traits as skill, technique, and knowledge that contribute to the translator’s self-image problem. If translation is skill then it is something less than art, a secondary act. Among all the metaphors proposed for translation, one of the most elegant and subtle is that of Walter Benjamin, whose essay “The Task of the Translator” begins with the skilled but artless act of gluing together pot shards but moves rapidly beyond this mundane figure into luminous visions.
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Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way, a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.
Later in the same paragraph Benjamin continues: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully” (1969, 78–79).
Several metaphors are working on several levels here. On the one hand matching the pieces of a broken pot is like the reproduction of meaning in translation; and on the other the original and the translation are themselves both fragments, not wholes. Abandoning the pots with their shapes, Benjamin goes on to speak of covering and translucency. The translation does not cover the original but allows light to shine through—not from it, however, but upon it. There appears to be, in that light, a premise of a reality bigger than both translation and original. When I read Benjamin it reminded me of a broken pot in the Rajasthani bard Madhu Nath’s own stories—a pot that can be neither glued together nor replicated.
This pot appears in King Bharthari’s tale in the central episode of part 2. Here the yogi Gorakh Nath mourns for his broken clay jug, deliberately mocking King Bharthari’s mourning for his cremated queen. The king says the jug is easily replaced, and the yogi retorts that the queen is too. They agree that the yogi will restore Queen Pingala to life if the king replaces the jug. The king commandeers the labor of scores of potters, but the yogi uses his “divine play” (lila ) to spoil the potters’ work so they fail to get the original jug’s color just right. When cartloads of jugs are delivered by exhausted potters, Gorakh Nath scorns them, holding up his shards of a slightly different color, and demanding once more a jug just like the one that broke:
So King Bharthari grasped his feet and prostrated himself. “Grain-giver, I’ve done the best I could, good or bad, I’ve ordered what I could. Now, Grain-giver, that’s enough. Good or bad, black or fair, make me a Pingala. Just as I’ve brought these jugs, black or yellow, so bring her, black or yellow.”
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Of course, the yogi is able to summon up not one but seven hundred fifty identical queens and the sameness of their faces, clothes, and jewelry are elaborated upon to the audience’s considerable wonder. On the surface the point seems to be that yogis are more powerful than kings or potters: without divine power, a king can’t even replicate the form and color of a common clay jug; with it a yogi can infinitely multiply the form and color of a human being who has burned to ash.
Gorakh Nath’s pottery lesson, however, goes beyond such trumpeting of yogis’ magic power. For even perfect reproductions are illusions, if there is no graspable reality in the original. This lack of reality operates on several levels. We do not even know whether any of the seven hundred fifty Pingalas is the real Pingala—since she burned up and all these may just be Gorakh Nath’s saktis , enslaved female spirits in Pingala’s form. But, even if one of the restored queens is the real one, she is still no better than a whore (as Gorakh Nath makes clear) because no human love endures forever. All of them, perfect copies though they are, are just as false as the cartloads of jugs that do not match the original jug. They represent distractions from higher or calmer realities for which the yogi’s unblemished and irreplaceable jug of pure cool water may itself be a sign.
Walter Benjamin’s pottery lesson indicates that translating from one language to another might be like the act of matching fragments to rebuild a shattered whole, but that this work is neither perfect reproduction nor an illusory effort doomed to failure. Ultimately, Benjamin’s images push our thoughts beyond the translator and his work, to consider the relation between languages, suggesting that a shared human capacity for communication exists beyond particular tongues.
Why do I thus laboriously juxtapose these very different uses of broken-pot images emerging from different cultural discourses and created for different didactic aims? One solid if small reason is that it seems to me auspicious that for both Nath yogis and European literary criticism a broken pot and its reconstruction or replication may become metaphors for the possible and the impossible, indicators of communication between two worlds (whether of French and German poetry, or of yogis and kings, or of Rajasthani peasants and Western readers). One ephemeral but larger reason for this pottery lesson is that both Benjamin’s and Gorakh Nath’s metaphors point beyond cycles of disintegration and reconstruction to some more stable area of light
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or truth. For those of us who spend our days translating texts and cultures, this is encouraging.
Yellow or black, I have tried to make these tales stand up. Lacking yogis’ magic along with much other knowledge and skill, I have labored even longer and harder than Bharthari’s potters. I can only hope that the imperfect results presented here are, as Benjamin advises, limpid to the light of the original.
(Courtesy of UCLA)
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