In a psalm of praise to yhvh, King David sings: “For I see your heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you set. What is man that you remember him?” (Psalms 8:4)
“What isn’t man?” yhvh might have responded. “Man — male and female — is the most marvelous, most complete, creature of the universe, replicating the union of heaven and earth by combining in a single integrated unit a refined spiritual soul and a coarse material body.”
But, we may ask, is not man merely a complex self-replicating series of chemical processes whose so-called “consciousness” is an illusion derived from memory replay and pattern identification? Is not man merely an accident of trillions of incremental and random mutations? Is not man an infinitesimally small and insignificant animal, walking the crusty ridges of a watery planet somewhere on a rather unimportant edge of a vast, swirling galaxy that is, itself, lost in an unimpressive corner of a much vaster expanding universe? Isn’t man merely a highly evolved primate, having developed both language and analytical reasoning, endowed with inventiveness and ingenuity, seeking ever-greater security, pleasure, and amusement, producing offspring and then dying, all to no meaningful end? Isn’t that man? Or, is Man — male and female — nothing less than the conscious universe itself, the whole reiterated in the part, a reference point within a fractal that is the same on every scale of perception? The notion that man is the most highly evolved animal ever to roam our planet’s surface represents a very noble self-vision. But the notion that Man — male and female — is nothing less than the universe itself elevates humanity to the level of the sacred.
Most readers are familiar with the Mandelbrot image of fractal geometry:
Each part, when enlarged, replicates the whole, and this self-replication continues infinitely, on every scale of perception. But how, then, can we distinguish one scale of perception from another? Can we even speak of different scales of perception if every scale is an exact replica of the scale “above” and the scale “below”? It is like attempting to identify the center of a line that extends infinitely in both directions; every point is the center. Thus, in reference to the Mandelbrot image, we cannot speak of different scales of perception; instead, there is only infinite replication of a single pattern wherever one casts one’s attention. What then is Man, this most intelligent of animals roaming the surface of the planet Earth? According to fractal geometry, Man — male and female — is one scale of perception at which the entire universe replicates itself, not distinguishable in any way from the whole.
Imagine, for the sake of a thought experiment, that a person has somehow been born without normal human senses, and that this person can only perceive through a tiny camera and microphone located somewhere inside his or her own physical body. That person would certainly believe that all the diverse organs of the body are outside, not inside — just as we think the vast world that we perceive around us is outside, not inside. Ideas like “outside” and “inside,” then, are just illusions created by the mechanics of our sensory perception. What if the world is really inside each of us, not outside? What if the world only appears to be outside because our perception is temporarily confined to the senses of a human body made of flesh? What if we are witnessing no less than the efficient functioning of our own cosmic form when we look around ourselves at the “outer” world?
It requires a great leap of the imagination to think of the universe in that way. How, for example, would that self-perception impact one’s beliefs and actions? If the consciousness in each of us is actually the undivided consciousness of the entire universe, and if the human body is, in some subtle sense, a replica of the whole, then what individual can be devalued without devaluing everyone? And if each of us replicates the whole, then who among us is a moral island, and how can we say that a person’s private thoughts and actions are his or hers alone, having no effect on others or on the world as a whole?
Where the rationalist sees metaphor, the mystic sees equivalence. Where the rationalist finds in the natural world many useful analogies for describing inner emotional experiences, the mystic denies the outer world an independent existence, interpreting it instead as a hall of mirrors that merely reflects back multiforms of the viewer wherever the viewer happens to cast his or her attention. The rationalist believes the human being to be small and the universe to be immense, but the mystic asserts that one just keeps seeing one’s own self, over and over, in each part and on every scale. And if the mystic’s understanding is correct, then by doing an action in the outer world, one can effect a change within the one who knows that action.
This mystical way of interpreting human experience may strike some people as fanciful; for others, it may feel intuitively correct. One must learn to recognize that the perception of the observer is the common ground of all objective phenomena. Whether large or small, near or far, external events all happen on the screen of consciousness, and therefore whatever event one may observe, one is always only observing one’s own self. The external object can be known only because of the existence, in the observer’s own thoughts, of an archetype (a Platonic “ideal”) associated with that object. Thus, subject, not object — consciousness, not matter — is the foundation of all existence. But more important, in our knowing of the objective world, likenesses are not mere likenesses; rather, they are equivalences. There are not a thousand trees covering a forested hillside; there is only the one archetypal Tree in the consciousness of the observer by which each tree on the hillside is recognized to be a tree, and it is always that one archetypal Tree that one is seeing, over and over, whenever and wherever one happens to see a tree.
It is in the foregoing sense that we can begin to understand temple-based worship. Today, many people associate temple-based worship with primitive religion. A temple implies a localized conception of divinity — a particular god serving a particular community, not a universal God belonging to all — and thus temple-based worship seems to foster religious rivalry. In addition, a temple implies a priestly professional class mediating between God and the devotee, thus offending modern notions of self-reliance and social equality. Finally, a temple implies sacrifices and other offerings that, to a modern understanding, are quite unlikely to please a self-sufficient, all-powerful God that has no need for food or clothing. But there is a power in temple-based worship that we can come to appreciate when we learn to think about self and world in a new way.
Today, India is one of the few places where temple-based worship — and fire sacrifices, in particular — remain a vital part of the religious culture. Not surprisingly, then, Hindu tradition preserves, like a time capsule, many ideas from the ancient world concerning temple practice, and when we examine these ideas, we find that many of them have parallels in descriptions of the Jewish temple service.
At the end of the book of Exodus, the Israelites have completed the construction of a sanctuary dedicated to yhvh, but they do not yet know how to operate it — yhvh must provide them with a user’s manual. The English name for that user’s manual (i.e., the third book of the Torah) is “Leviticus,” from the Greek word Leuitikos, which means “that which concerns the Levites [(i.e., the priests)].” Leviticus relates the specifics of the Jewish temple service, and a brief study of the Hindu tradition helps to unlock many of Leviticus’s secrets.
The foregoing is Part Three, section one, of Torah Nondualism: Diversity, Conflict, and Synthesis in the Pentateuch. For a thoughtful explanation of the Jewish temple service, please read the remainder of Part Three.
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Copyright © 2011 James H. Cumming