Myths, Gods, and High Philosophy
Hinduism uses both mythology and epic to present sublime philosophical ideas in an allegorical form. Thus, Hinduism recognizes many gods and incarnations, and each of these is a distinct personality with a distinct role in India’s vast sacred literature. Nevertheless, classical Hindu theology recognizes only one God. The many gods and incarnations of the Hindu religion are all animated by that one God, and they represent different aspects of the One. Just as the universe appears to be diverse, so also God appears to be diverse, although both are always unified and undifferentiated.
The Goddess (the feminine aspect of the One) is associated in Hindu mythology with providence, wisdom, and creativity, but also with power, and, in particular, with the power to defeat arrogance, pride, selfishness, and other qualities associated with the unrestrained ego. The ego in Hindu thought is a false conception of self, and the unrestrained ego manifests symbolically in Hindu mythology as various demons, and, in particular, as MahishAsura (lit., “Buffalo Demon”).
The Devi Mahatmya (from the Markandeya Purana) tells the story of how the Goddess destroyed MahishAsura. The story is violent and bloody, and the Goddess is depicted in fierce form as the destroyer of the ego. Despite the frightening imagery, the Goddess is, however, loving and kind. She represents the protective mother who fights fiercely to defend her children and to instill in them noble qualities.
The war against MahishAsura and his demon army lasts nine days. On the tenth day of the September–October moon, the Goddess slays MahishAsura. According to Hindu epic, this same day is the day that Rama defeated the demon king Ravana, freeing Sita from captivity. The mythological battle against MahishAsura is celebrated in the festivals of Navaratri (lit., “Nine Nights”) and VijayaDashami (lit., “Tenth Day of Victory”). Interestingly, this ten–day Hindu festival frequently falls on the same days as the Jewish high holidays. In the Jewish system, the first day of the September–October moon is Rosh HaShanah (“New Year’s Day”), and the tenth day of the same moon is Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”).
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The Broken Clock
The Hebrew word for year (SHaNaH) has a numerological value of 300 (SH) + 50 (N) + 5 (H), or 355, representing the number of days in the lunar year. Most traditional agrarian cultures follow a 12–moon lunar calendar because the phases of the moon are so readily observable and because the moon has such a powerful effect on crop growth. Of course, in a mathematically perfect universe, the solar and the lunar years would each be exactly 360 days, with each lunar cycle being exactly 30 days. But because of the Primordial Breach (described in several ancient mythologies), the lunar and solar calendars are out of sync, and therefore time yearns to be rectified. You could say that we reside inside a giant clock, but the gears of the clock aren’t quite the right size, and so when the minute hand (the moon) has revolved around the clock twelve times, the hour hand (the sun) has not quite completed its full revolution.
Many ancient cultures ritually repair broken time by celebrating and sanctifying the ten–day gap between the lunar year (355 days) and the solar year (365 days). In India, VijayaDashami is a harvest festival. But if one counts 12 moons (a full lunar year) from the previous harvest, one finds that the grain is not yet ready. The moon has completed its 12 cycles, a full lunar year has passed, but the world must still wait 10 more days for the sun to complete its cycle, and then, at last, the grain is ready to harvest. Those 10 days (the fissure in time) are sacred. In Ancient Egypt, it was said that the gods were “born” during those 10 days. Those 10 days mark the spot where Time itself is broken, suggesting an existential crisis, but also permitting an infusion of something that lies beyond astrological conditions, permitting an infusion of divine Grace. By celebrating Navaratri and VijayaDashami, we align ourselves with the eternal perfection that lies beyond the distortions of broken time.
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Judaism’s Missed Appointments
Astrologers have known since ancient times that there are approximately 235 synodic months during a period of 19 tropical years. (The terms “synodic months” and “tropical years” refer to the lengths of the lunar and solar cycles from the perspective of an observer standing on the surface of the earth.) If we divide 235 by 12, we get 19, with a remainder of 7. Therefore, the significance of the 235-month–19-year harmonic is that the lunar year (12 moon cycles) can be reconciled with the solar year by intercalating 7 extra lunar months at various places in a 19-solar-year cycle. In other words, in 7 of the 19 years, one must count 13 moons instead of the usual 12 so as to keep the lunar year more or less in sync with the solar year. Meton of Athens introduced this 19-year lunisolar cycle to the Greeks in 432 b.c.e., but it was known long before then by astrologers in ancient Babylon.
Months that are linked to lunar phases are more harmonious with observed astrological phenomena than alternating 30- and 31-day months, in which the full moon might appear on any seemingly random day of the month. But a lunar calendar — with months linked to lunar phases, and 12 lunar cycles corresponding to a roughly 355-day year — must be reconciled with the annual 365-day solar cycle if it is to remain aligned with the agricultural seasons. Some cultures use a straight lunar calendar, making no effort to reconcile that calendar with the solar year. The Islamic calendar, for example, is based on 12 lunar months with no intercalation of an extra month, and therefore the Islamic holy month of Ramadhan moves from season to season, shifting approximately 11 days earlier each solar year, and making the full round of the solar year every 33 years, approximately.
The Torah puts great emphasis on the use of observable astrological phenomena for the measurement of time. For example, in the book of Genesis, we read: “And God said, ‘Let there be luminaries in the firmament of heaven to separate between day and night, and they will be for signs and for appointed times....’ ” (Genesis 1:14) (For astrological references in Hebrew scripture, click here.) Traditionally, therefore, Jews have followed a lunar calendar, but they have reconciled the lunar and solar years by occasionally intercalating a 13th lunar month into the 12-month lunar year. At one time, this was done in an ad hoc way, relying on observations regarding the plumpness of the grain and counting an extra month of Adar when necessary to ensure that the grain was plump during the spring month of Nisan. But after Jews migrated to Europe, they no longer knew when the grain was plump in the Levant (i.e., modern Israel and Palestine). Therefore, in 359 c.e., the Jews adopted the Metonic cycle as their official method of reconciling the lunar year, on which their ritual calendar is based, with the solar year, on which the agricultural seasons are based.
The Metonic cycle is, however, imperfect — it is “off” by about one day every 219 years. Put another way, the Jewish “year” is, on average, about 6.6 minutes longer than the tropical year (the annual seasonal cycle). Thus, since 359 c.e., when Jews began using the Metonic cycle, the Jewish year has shifted forward (relative to the seasons) by about 7.5 days.
The Jewish holidays are called moedim (lit., “appointments“ or “appointed times“). They are not merely seasonal celebrations; they correspond to precise astrological alignments — appointments with God, so to speak. Because the moedim are based in part on the phases of the moon, the 7.5-day shift in the Jewish year does not necessarily result in the holidays being celebrated on the wrong days. Rather, the 7.5-day discrepancy is only significant if, in some year, it causes the calendar to be thrown off by a full month. How might that happen?
As noted, Nisan (the month in which the Passover holiday is observed) is supposed to correspond to the full moon in the early spring, when the grain kernels in the Levant are plump. (See Exodus 9:31, 13:4, 23:15; Leviticus 23:5) The month that precedes Nisan is Adar, and if the kernels are not sufficiently developed at the end of the month of Adar, a second month of Adar must be intercalated (added) before the month of Nisan. But if instead the second month of Adar is intercalated only in accordance with a strict 19-year Metonic cycle, and if, over the course of 1,658 years, that cycle has shifted later, relative to the seasons, by 7.5 days, then there might be some years when a second month of Adar should be intercalated (because the grain kernels in the Levant are insufficiently plump), but no such month is in fact intercalated, because none is dictated by the misaligned Metonic cycle. In short, the 7.5-day shift in the Jewish year means that, in some years, the grain kernels in the Levant might be plump in the month after the month designated as Nisan by the Metonic cycle, and when that is so, the Jews are celebrating their moedim at the wrong time, in effect missing their appointments.
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The Imperfect Union of Sol and Luna
As discussed above, many ritual calendars of the ancient world were designed to rectify astrological time by repairing the ten-day disharmony between lunar and solar time. The ten days between the Jewish holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are explained in this way, as are the ten days of the Hindu holidays of Navaratri and Vijayadashami. Indeed, according to one model, the purpose of all spiritual practices is to unite the sun and the moon (Sol and Luna) in a perfect and stable union. According to the Egyptian myths associated with the god Horus, the sun and moon are the right and left eyes of the sky, but because Sutekh damaged Horus’s left eye, the moon waxes and wanes, its light diminished. This story of Sutekh damaging Horus’s eye is highly significant, for it describes the central problem of the human condition. Our dualistic perception of the world is rooted, mythologically speaking, in the poverty of one of our two eyes, a poverty that resulted from Sutekh’s mischief, and with this imbalance in our scales of perception, we weigh all our experiences. But Thoth is the god who ‘fills the eye,’ and when the damaged eye is restored to wholeness, our poverty of vision is removed, and the divine unity of Creation then becomes apparent.
According to Jewish legend, the sun and the moon were originally created as equals. Consider this playful story from the Babylonian Talmud (Chulin 60b): “Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi said: Two verses contradict one another: [It is written], ‘and God created the two great luminaries’ [Genesis 1:16], and it is written, ‘the great light... and the small light’ [ibid.]. [The first verse says that both the moon and the sun are ‘great,’ but the second verse says that only the sun is ‘great,’ and that the moon is ‘small.’ The moon was originally created as the sun’s equal. She then] said before [God]: ‘Master of the Universe, can two kings wear one crown?’ He said to her: ‘Go and diminish yourself.’ She said before Him: ‘Master of the Universe, because I said a proper thing before You, must I diminish myself?’ He said to her: ‘Go and rule over the day and the night.’ She said to Him: ‘Of what benefit is a candle in bright daylight? Of what benefit can I be?’ He said: ‘Let [the nation of] Israel count days and years by you.... Let the righteous be called by your name — Jacob the Small [Amos 7:5], Samuel the Small [1 Samuel 2:19], David the Small [1 Samuel 16:11, 17:14].’ ”
In other words, the moon might be small, but she was created as the equal of the sun, and it is our task to reunite her with the sun, as did Jacob, Samuel, and David. Here, of course, we are speaking metaphorically; we are using the language of myth to speak about philosophical truths. The union of Sol and Luna represents the elimination dualistic thinking. It must be achieved at all levels. It must be achieved not merely astrologically, by way of the ritual calendar, but also inter-personally, by cultivating harmonious relationships with one another, and internally, by harmonizing the complementary opposites within our own souls. A rigid adherence to the Metonic cycle in place of observed astrological phenomena represents an imperfect union of Sol and Luna, reflecting a state of exile — exile from the natural world, and exile from our own selves.
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The Lunar Sabbath
A similar error occurs in regard to observance of the Sabbath. The sanctification of the seventh day (the Sabbath) originated in ancient Mesopotamia, the homeland of the patriarch Abraham. In Mesopotamian practice, the Sabbath (called “sabattu”) was a lunar holiday celebrated in conjunction with the four phases of the moon — (1) the new moon day, (2) the waxing half-moon day, (3) the full moon day, and (4) the waning half-moon day. Because the lunar month is about 29-1/2 days, these seven-day lunar phases were not always seven days; an extra day sometimes needed to be counted, analogous to the extra lunar month that is sometimes intercalated in the Jewish year. In later times, the lunar Sabbaths (which were in sync with the four phases of the moon) were replaced by a strict seven-day cycle that is not rooted in any observable astrological phenomena. This change was probably made under the influence of a non-Jewish culture that recognized a seven-day cycle based on the seven visible astrological luminaries. (For scriptural evidence that the ancient Israelites equated Saturn with an aspect of God, click here.) Interestingly, every Sabbath day that occurs in the Torah falls on a new moon, a full moon, or on the eighth or 22nd day of the lunar month. Also, Hebrew scripture frequently refers to “new moons and Sabbaths,” implying that the Sabbaths are measured in relation to the new moon. This evidence strongly suggests that, in ancient times, the Israelites observed the lunar Sabbath that Abraham had introduced from Mesopotamia.
Some rabbis argue that the unvarying seven-day cycle proves, because it is not linked to any specific astrological phenomenon, that Jews worship a transcendent God. Thus, Sabbath-observance, by its lack of any naturalistic rationale, becomes an effective affirmation of Jewish identity, binding the Jewish community together precisely because the Sabbath is something not of this world and its observance is uniquely Jewish. That argument, however, contradicts the book of Genesis, which, as noted, says: “Let there be luminaries in the firmament of heaven to separate between day and night, and they will be for signs and for appointed times....” (Genesis 1:14) Certainly, the Sabbath is an “appointed time,” and no one suggests that the link between astrological phenomena and other Jewish holidays implies the worship of astrological luminaries. Rather, it implies a recognition that “the heavens recount the glory of El.” (Psalms 19:1) (On the astrological implications of the Hanukkah festival, click here.) There is therefore nothing un-Jewish about the Sabbath being aligned with the four phases of the moon, serving (among other things) to elevate the moon to her original status as the sun’s coequal. And if that is so, then the observance of the Sabbath based on an unvarying seven-day cycle represents yet another missed appointment, yet another failure to recognize the greatness of what is small, yet another failure to unite the opposites and make duality disappear.
To read Torah Nondualism: Diversity, Conflict, and Synthesis in the Pentateuch, please click here.
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Copyright © 2011 James H. Cumming