Indic Varta

  • Visitor:39
  • Published on: 2024-04-18 06:16 pm
  • 19 min read
  • 1
  • 0

In the mythologies of India and China demons are never devils in our later Western sense. Hideous as their forms and functions may be, they are always aspects or agents of universal nature, and, almost invariably, the wrathful figures of Hindu-Buddhist iconography have one hand in the gesture (mudra) of “Fear not,” to indicate that the apparition is another form of maya, another of the million masks of God.

Demonography in Western and Eastern Ideas

One of the principal difficulties which the Westerner, and more especially the Christian, encounters in trying to understand polarity is, as we have just seen, the absolute gulf which our tradition has set between good and evil. It is inconceivable that there should be any common ground, let alone common cause, between God and Satan. The conflict here is seen to be ultimately real and serious, so much so that the suggestion that there is some profound, inner level at which God and Satan are at one seems to be the height of blasphemy. Our study of polarity can therefore profit from a special con¬ sideration of the mythology of the Devil, of the images of evil, and of the attitudes which they evoke. This must include, too, what might be called the “non-images” of evil, far more potent in their suggestion of supernatural horror than comparably abstract images of God in suggestion of divine glory. For every really sophisticated conception of the Devil is allusive: nothing is specified, but there is just the intimation that the real design and nature of evil is something so ghastly that ordinary people are quite unable even to imagine it.


    Few writers have been able to evoke the horror of evil more imaginatively than Arthur Machen, and I am including a passage from one of his stories in which the raconteur insists that the essence of evil is noit to be found in the crudities of common vice but in a kind of: genius for the subtly unnatural. “If the roses and the lilies suddenly sang on this coming morning; if the furniture began to move in procession, as in De Maupassant's tale!” Evil is sensed, ultimately, in the goose  flesh and chills which arise in the presence of sorcery, of magic subverting the laws of nature. I remember the way I felt many years ago when someone gave me serious reasons for believing that a very attractive young woman was in fact an old lady of eighty. Or think of someone removing a glove to reveal, not a hand, but a bird’s claw. Comic or fanciful descriptions of such things are all very well, but one has to imagine coming upon them in sober reality. We feel intimations of that pure panic which arises in absolutely unpredictable situations, the terror of believing that nature or oneself is the victim of a sinister insanity. It is sinister because these subversions of the natural are always felt to be the work of a powerful malignance whose capabilities and intentions are never precisely known.

        Evil is sensed pre-eminently, then, in what is strangely alien—not in sheer chaos and nonsense, but in profoundly odd and unnerving disturbances of the normal. This is certainly the formula of the best horror stories. It is significant, how¬ ever, that we read such tales for entertainment and find an extraordinary fascination in them—as well as in all the cruder manifestations of darkness from crime reports to public executions. Generally speaking, the fascination depends upon the experience being vicarious, but nonetheless there is a long tradition supporting the idea that the Evil One is above all alluring. The allure may be exercised in two ways: through overt beauty—notably through the charms of the opposite sex—or through the direct fascination of horror itself. On the one hand there is the baited trap or the poisoned fruit of fair and luscious form; on the other there is the vertiginous attraction of the dreadful, fascinating its victim as a snake seems to hypnotize a bird.

        Only rather seldom is the good, or God, represented with allure, for of the trinity of goodness, truth, and beauty, the latter has very largely been annexed by the Devil. It is thus that literary and artistic representations of the divine rarely have the same verve and aesthetic allure as of the diabolic. Perhaps the painters of Chinese landscapes and Persian miniatures have come nearer than anyone to a persuasive vision of paradise, and the West has approached it in stained glass, in illuminated manuscripts, and in the jewelry of enamels and mosaics. All of this is, however, rather static and glistering as compared with the riots of imagination which have gone into the depiction of the Inferno. For all its splendor of detail, van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Lamb” is emotionally tame in comparison with his vision of Hell in “The Last Judgment.” Is it unfair to take as representative of this point Gustave Dora’s remarkable illustrations for the Divina Commedia? The engravings for the Inferno and the Purgatorio are rich with imagination. In contrast, those for the Paradiso are merely insipid—female angels in white nighties tripping through the skies. Reproduced here for comparison (plates 10 and 11 ) are his opposed visions of the central depth of Hell and the angelic choirs in the form of a rose about the light of the Godhead. Here there can be no doubt, in Dante’s own words, that “vision failed the lofty fantasy.” The vast icy cavern in which Satan broods with everlasting malignance is distinctly more impressive. Were it not for the dark silhouette of Beatrice and Dante upon the foreground cloud, the heavenly vision would have no character at all.


Alan W. Watts

    In general it seems that, in artistic representation, hell is exuberant and heaven is not. To put it in very contemporary and expressive terms, heaven does not “swing.” Coming right down to the mythological images of modem times, we have but to compare the last two phases of Walt Disney’s Fantasia . The representation of Walpurgis Night to Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain , supervised by that splendid fantast, Kay Nielsen, was so powerfully erotic and sinister that, when I first saw it, one or two people screamed for the show to be stopped. But at the midnight bell the forces of Light took over with incomparable sentimentality. Schubert’s Avc Maria, and a procession of shadowy figures—-monks, perhaps —carrying candles through a cathedral-like forest (It should be noted in passing that the situation is rather different in music. There is little diabolical music of any artistic merit as compared with the magnificent tradition of sacred music from Gregorian chant, through Palestrina, Bach, and Handel, to Walton and Faurl. Nevertheless, it used to be said in early medieval times that “the Devil has all the good tunes.” For the melodies of many of our traditional hymns and carols are taken from popular ballads.)

    The problem of the allure of the image of evil does not permit easy generalizations. In the West, at least, the realm of the Devil has been more favorable than the divine for the projection of erotic and orgiastic themes, largely of a sadomasochistic type, since vicarious agony is suggestive of the orgasmic convulsion. Perhaps we may be helped in this puzzle by the little that we know of erotic history in the Western world. G. R. Taylor has pointed out that a truly sinister and malignant image of the Devil does not appear in Christian imagery until early in the fourteenth century. Prior to that time the Devil is, in popular representation, somewhat of a buffoon, and, in theology, “a pure spirit, dangerous and tempting but not the direct enemy of man.” He goes on to associate the emergence of this abysmally evil image of the Devil with that epidemic of insanity which expressed itself in the persecution of witches and heretics by the Holy Inquisition. Since these tortures were quite obviously a pretext for sadistic lust, the atmosphere of this particular passion naturally transfers itself into images of the realm of darkness. The Devil's form is, after all, that of Pan, and attendant demons are satyrs; and, as the ministers of punishment in Hell, their images reflect the motivations of their creators. The allure of demonographic literature and painting is, to a considerable; extent, pornographic.


    But since the demonographer is very often the same person as the preacher, the pornographic motivation must usually be unconscious or unadmitted. It is concealed under i the pretext of righteous wrath and the fear of Hell, and so, at the same time, it is concealed that the Devil is made in the image of those who imagine him. The lustful Pan or the devouring monster are aspects of man that cannot be denied. How must we seem to the animals upon whom we prey for food? The sensation of being threatened, spiritually, by a weirdly alien and incalculable power of malice is, above all, a symptom of unconsciousness—of man's alienation from him¬ self. Furthermore, inasmuch as he is unconscious of the Devil as his own image, he is the more apt to vent upon his fellows his fear of and fury at this disowned aspect of himself. This ‘ is why the acceptance of the Devil in and as oneself is a moral obligation.

    May not this, then, be why the figure of the Evil One is simultaneously horrendous and alluring: he represents the extreme of "self-othering,” where, on the human level, man is most ashamed of his own organism, and, on the mythological level, Brahma has lost himself most completely in the maya of separateness. The horrendous element of the experience belongs to the motion of hiding, and the alluring to the motion of seeking to the dawning recognition of oneself in its most unfamiliar form. At times when any sort of puritanism is dominant, or any fanatical, one-sided view of man, the ignored aspect of our nature appears as an external devil, sometimes an angel or fallen spirit, and sometimes in the form of other people, as, say, in anti-Semitism. In a culture dominated by puritan forms of Christianity, the Devil will therefore be an external caricature of our erotic, animal, and self-seeking aspects.

    As we shall see, the Christian Devil is unique. No other demonic figure has ever been conceived to be so purely malicious, so sinister, and so totally opposed to the universal design. And even in Christianity this image was not conceived in its full horror until the late Middle Ages. The formation of this image is perhaps a by-product of the growth of the peculiarly Western view of personality and its values, that is, of personality as grounded and centered upon consciousness  and will, of man's essence as the individual and immortal  soul. This view gains an intense sharpening of consciousness at the price of ignoring a great deal that is also human personality. It is a unique growth of consciousness in one way and loss of consciousness in another, and what is lost appears in the image of this implacable enemy of man and all his values.

            To secure this growth of consciousness we must recover the lost or hidden dimensions of our nature; we must, as Jung would say, "integrate the Evil One." But whereas much has been done to rescue the erotic sphere of life from the Devil, we are still amazingly unaware of the social and ecological dimensions of the person. We therefore treat other societies or nations as the Devil, and speak of our technical progress as the war against nature.

            In other cultures man’s consciousness has been more diffuse, though less brilliantly concentrated—no microscopes, no telescopes, no scientific analysis, nor anything like the same degree of the feeling of individual responsibility and freedom. In the mythologies of India and China demons are never devils in our later Western sense. Hideous as their forms and functions may be, they are always aspects or agents of universal nature, and, almost invariably, the wrathful figures of Hindu-Buddhist iconography have one hand in the gesture (mudra) of “Fear not,” to indicate that the apparition is another form of maya, another of the million masks of God. Even the Biblical Satan is far from being the Devil of later Christian doctrine, for in The Book of Job he appears simply as a sort of counsel for the prosecution in the Court of Heaven, the Lord’s attorney general. For in the Hebrew matrix of Christianity, today as yesterday, there is no place for so dangerous a brush with the insanity of ultimate dualism as is involved in the full development of Christian demonology. As Kohler has put it:, '‘There is no evil before God, since a good purpose is served even by that which appears bad. In the life of the human body pleasure and pain, the impetus to life and its restraint and inhibition form a necessary contrast, making for health; so, in the moral order of the universe, each being who battles with evil receives new strength for the unfolding of the good. The principle of holiness . . . transforms and ennobles every evil.”



Notes on the Plates:
10. Lucifer, King of Hell. Gustave Dore, 1833-1883.
11 . The Saintly Throng in the For1n of a Rose. Gustave Dore, 1833-1883.


Bibliography: 
Watts, A., 2020. The two hands of God: The myths of polarity. New World Library.,  pp. 36-42


Center for Indic Studies is now on Telegram. For regular updates on Indic Varta, Indic Talks and Indic Courses at CIS, please subscribe to our telegram channel !