The bigger picture

Poltics and personal life, science and religion

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg
Rochester, New York, US
June 20
I am a writer ("The fiction of a thinkable world: Body, meaning, and the culture of capitalism" [Monthly Review Press 2005]; "A new biology of religion: Spiritual practice and the life of the body" [Praeger, 2012]; "Enlightenment Interrupted: The lost moment of German Idealism and the reactionary present" [Zero Books, 2014]) and an attorney. I'm most interested in how we got into our present-day mess and how we can't separate our self-image from the experience of the world.


APRIL 2, 2012 5:00PM

What's been keeping me

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I really do mean to write more here but things always seem to get in the way. I've been correcting proofs for the upcoming publication of A New Biology of Religion and beginning to write a book on our relationship with the Enlightenment, The Secret History of Reason, or, The Birth of Modernity out of the Spirit of Reaction. And I went to India.

Somehow all those India-trip blog ideas turned into a small ebook, with 28 pictures, called In the Land of Temples. It's available now on Amazon (for Kindle and Kindle apps) and for Nook at Barnes & Noble. Please do check it out, and in the mean time I will nurse along some genuine blog ideas.

Until then, here's a sample from In the Land of Temples :

Gopuram, Thiruvannamalai 



You can glimpse the big temple’s gopurams from far off, but to get to the one marking the main entrance we have to walk around two sides of the complex; our three buses can’t find parking spots any closer. It’s night already, the soft evening of the tropics, but our way is bright from the street lighting, the strings of bare bulbs that hang from the stalls along the temple wall, and light from the open shops across the way. Devotees and pilgrims surge in both directions as motorcyclists and autorickshaw drivers pick their ways artfully through the crowds. People stop to consider what’s for sale: sacred pictures, fried snacks, garlands of fresh flowers and other offerings to be brought to the gods, toys for restless children or those left behind while mother and father are away, colored powders, bangles, cords, and necklaces of the crinkled red-brown rudraksha beads sacred to the god, said to be the tears that Shiva wept as he flew around the world with the dead body of his first wife in his arms. From a CD shop I hear the honey-sweet voice of playback singer S.P. Balasubramaniam singing “Om namah Shivaya.” (On a later visit a friend and I dash in to buy the CD, four long tracks for 50 rupees, about a dollar.)

Once we reach the entrance, though, we step out of the riot of noise, color, and garish artificial light into something else. We file past a security guard who seems to ignore the video game sounds of his magnetometer and then massages our bags in a strictly pro forma manner. He does not find my camera—photography is forbidden inside the sanctuaries and often frowned-upon elsewhere—but it makes no difference. Inside is a waking dream, the hidden divine nature of reality manifest in stone. I am not in a mood to take pictures.

The first courtyard is vast and the next one seems even bigger. From the gopurams and the roofs of all the secondary temples gods, spirits, and ordinary humans look down on us or go about their business without noticing our fleeting lives. A giant black Nandi gazes lovingly in the direction of the sanctum, still far away. We are hardly the only visitors but all around is space, so much space that the noise of the other devotees is all but lost.

Everything in me falls silent. I understand now what it means to be awestruck, though the words that come of their own bidding are less poetic. Holy shit, I think. My thoughts, my feelings, spin in a tight circle. I want to do nothing but drink in the air, the stillness, the sense of presence that is palpable and close to overwhelming even this far from the heart of the compound.

In the half light the black granite buildings merge into the shadows like looming thoughts in the landscape of a dream. As in some dreams, each courtyard leads through to another and another, more walls and more gopurams, taking us ever deeper as we draw near the home of the god. At each gateway we step up and down and touch the worn stone threshold to take its dust on our heads and hearts, submitting ourselves to the temple’s own logic and power as we move towards the sanctuary.

I feel as if I am walking through something built long before there were people. The time-smoothed cut stone walls, the tiers of corniced niches and statues, the smaller temples inside the complex with their own teeming superstructures, all seem to have grown here through oceanic time, far too complex and inevitable to be the work of human hands.

We honor elephant-headed Ganesh, as you must at the start of any Hindu ritual, but the pilgrimage organizers are in a hurry and I don’t get much of a look at the sanctuary itself before we are inside of it. There is plenty to distract me inside, though, because I am once again face to face with the Indian refusal to turn the sacred into something pretty and presentable. The huge two-storied hallways, dark or age-darkened stone held up by ornately-carved pillars, are lit by bare fluorescent bulbs. As we enter we are channeled into a system of metal rails right out of Disneyland. On the walls and hanging from the ceilings are large blue signs with white letters in Tamil and English directing people to Ordinary Darshan and Special Darshan. People are lining up obediently. There’s something factory-like about the scene.

Darshan—ordinary or special—is what we’re here for. The word means “sight,” and taking darshan means literally that we get to see the divinity. But sight means something different in India than it does in the West. I was taught that perception is something passive; we open our eyes and receive and process whatever image falls on our retinas. And what we process is merely an image, a shadow of the real world that remains outside of us and quite apart from us. We look out from our selves into a world which we know only by image and inference.

Traditionally, at least, Indians have interpreted vision differently. It’s something active. We project ourselves out into the world, they say, and what we see is what comes back to us. Perception, then, is interaction. When two people exchange glances each one picks up a bit of the other’s being; they stand in each other’s shoes. While this theory isn’t consistent with the physics of vision, it shows a much better grasp of the actual neurological processes; in reality, imagination, intention, perception, and understanding are all intermingled. In an important sense the Indians are right and we’re wrong; perception is not passive at all.

That’s why exchanging glances with the gods is so important. We become divinized, just a little, and the gods become just a touch humanized. One could argue that none of this is necessary. According to the tradition that my home temple follows, there is no essential difference between gods and people. So what is the use of temples or of darshan?

They’re still necessary, at least for most of us, because we find it all but impossible to experience that lack of separation. Reality is one, but we live in pieces. In the temple, at least, and in the moment of darshan, those of us who aren’t sages have a chance to breathe in that oneness. They’re places where it’s possible for ordinary people to live in the real world, if only for a few seconds.

Arrangements have been made for our group to have special darshan, so we move off to the right as the other devotees take the line to the left. In the end we will sit just outside the sanctum while they stand behind us. It is a mark of the hierarchical nature of Indian society, so deeply ingrained that nobody seems to mind. As our line and the ordinary darshan line pass next to each other we file along beside groups of peasant women wearing deep red cotton saris, devotees of the nearby goddess at Melmalayanur. Smiles pass back and forth but we’re all too engrossed in chanting and in preparing ourselves for what comes next for anything more. We turn to the left, climb a few stairs, and find ourselves in a tiny room. It is stiflingly hot. The doors close behind us, and a brief ritual begins.

The focus of our attention is a lingam—the pillar-like object that is at the heart of almost every Shiva temple. Often called a phallic symbol, it is both more and less than that; in India sexual desire is just a specific instance of the universal dance of separation, yearning, and reunification. There are millions of lingams in thousands of temples, but the one in Thiruvannamalai is special. It is a butalinga, a lingam in which the divine manifests itself as one of the five elements of Indian cosmology: earth, water, fire, air, and space. This one is fire, though Arunachala itself is also a lingam of fire, and once a year it is lit up with a giant blaze that lasts for days and is seen for miles.

And what happens next? From one perspective it is nothing much. As we look through a doorway a priest waves a flame at the lingam, which is crowned with gold, shaded by a sculptured canopy of auspicious serpents, and draped in flower garlands. The priest mumbles a few words in Sanskrit and then comes out, giving us a chance to wave our hands over the same fire and handing us a pinch of vibhuti, the sacred ash.

Yet it feels nothing like that. The presence is the room is more intense than anything else I have ever experienced. There is a kind of electrical charge that connects us with the silent and self-contained energy of the lingam itself; like some elemental forces it seems all the stronger for the distance between the two. As I wave my hands over the flame, dab ash on my forehead and swallow what remains I can feel that energy passing into me. I have had darshan.

Then it is over, and the doors open again so the next group can come in. I walk down the steps into yet another grand pillared hall and I start laughing. It is somehow as if I had glimpsed the very creation of the world and that I was carrying it with me on my forehead and my tongue. I have no idea how that is possible. But isn’t that the point?



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