These are key components of the Vedic religious world. Accordingly, they have been the focus of many studies by astute scholars in both India and the West. However, most of these books tend to be rather opaque to those who are relatively unfamiliar with the material at hand, and few of them have directed their readers' attention to all the components of the Vedic religious world just mentioned. I hope that this book makes these important aspects of Vedic thought more accessible to interested nonspecialists, thereby contributing to the wider understanding and continuing study of Vedic religion.'
As a way to frame these important but in some ways diverse aspects of Vedic thought, The Artful Universe denominates and highlights a particular theme that links all these components together, namely, the important role of the divine and human imagination in the formation, transformation, and reformation of a meaningful world. Religious functions of the imagination are woven throughout the Vedic world. The imagination here refers not only to the power and process by which an image is formed in and by the mind and heart, but also to a number of ways in which that inwardly formed image is drawn outward or expressed, as well as to that process by which images of seemingly external forces and truths are internalized or experienced within one's own being. This book shows that, according to Vedic thought, imaginative human beings create, cognize, and recognize a world of significance and value or a structure of truth precisely because they have the ability to imagine such a world or truth and that, in fact, this effective power is similar to the gods' very ability to fashion a meaningful universe by imagining it into being. The imaginative human being—poet, liturgist, contemplative sage—thus shares with the deities, or at least yearns to share with them, the ability to fashion, understand, and order an otherwise confusing and broken world. It is the creative, revelatory, and restorative imagination that makes human beings most like the gods.
Professional scholars of the Veda will recognize themes that have attracted the interest of eminent twentieth-century academics for some time: the notion that language has the power to create and maintain a world of meaning, for example; the metaphysics of creativity; the parallelism between divine creativity and human poetic expression; the similar aims of poetry and ritual; the role of the imagination in the contemplative experience of the sub-lime. But it is precisely these and related ideas which I sense might be of interest to people who do not specialize in Vedic scholarship but who nevertheless have become interested in Vedic thought and practice and who might find an introductory discussion of these ideas relevant to their own pursuits. I would in fact be most pleased if inquisitive poets, artists, dramatists, meditators, or sadhakas of one form or another find in the following pages information and perhaps even inspiration as they seek to know more about one of the oldest and most venerated of the world's spiritual traditions.
Initial research for this book was supported by a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and by funding supplied by Davidson College. I am most appreciative of the kindness and welcome given to me by the officers of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune; a special note of appreciation in this regard goes to R. N. Dandekar and S. D. Laddu. Thanks, too, go to M. D. Bhandare of the American Institute of Indian Studies, for the logistical support he gave to my family while we lived in Pune.
Many people have offered me their constructive criticism and have given me encouragement while I have undertaken the writing of this book. My thanks go first to Wendy Doniger, whose continuing interest in my work over the years means a great deal to me. Paul B. Courtright, Laurie L. Patton, Joanne Punzo Waghorne, Edward Levy, and several anonymous referees read the entire manuscript and offered suggestions for improvement. Of course, any mistakes in the following pages are my own.
For their collegial support at Davidson College I thank Mark Csikszentmihalyi, Trent Foley, Burkhard Henke, Herb Jackson, Samuel Maloney, Mark McCulloh, Alexander McKelway, Karl Plank, Lynn Poland, Max Polley, Daniel Rhodes, Catherine Slawy-Sutton, Homer Sutton, Job Thomas, Robert Williams, and Price Zimmermann. Scott Denham of Davidson's Ger-man department gave me valuable help one full morning as I worked through some Vedic songs I found particularly difficult to translate. I have enjoyed many hours of conversation on a wide range of topics on the poetic imagination, from Aristotle to Abhinavagupta, with Professor A. Vishnu Bhat of the English department at Madras Christian College.
With gratitude I acknowledge the encouragement given to me over the years by Professors Constantina Rhodes Bailly, Douglas Renfrew Brooks, and Paul Muller-Ortega.
I reserve my final, deepest thanks for my family—Pamela, Abigael, and Olivia—whose love and patience stand behind every word in the following pages. And it is with profound appreciation beyond the range of words that I offer my reverence to the artful source of all that is real and precious and valuable in this mysterious and awe-inspiring universe. I offer the fruits of my work to that incomprehensible wisdom that brings all things into being, sustains them, nourishes them, and transforms them into the splendor of the Absolute; I honor the divine imagination itself and its perfect embodiment in the play of the universal consciousness that pulses and dances through all beings.
Vedic religion in general revolved around the ideas that the wondrous marvels and powers of nature, the diverse personalities and behavior of the many gods and goddesses who gave form to and enlivened the world, the composition and dynamics of the human community, and the structure and destiny of the individual person are all somehow linked to one another through a transcendent universal order and harmony of being; that the power of this hidden principle could be harnessed and expressed in effective language; that, because of the interconnectedness of all being, actions performed
in any one of such realms therefore affect the status of all others; and that by inwardly knowing the nature and structure of that timeless unifying principle one might thereby free one's spirit from the vicissitudes of life and the constraints of death. Such a vision of the world found expression in Vedic religion in an intricate system of mythic narratives sung in metrical verse, in the performance of complicated yet similarly systematic ritual performances, and in the practice of contemplative meditation. As I hope to show, Vedic literature and practice also gave expression to the related ideas that the meaningful universe based on this transcendent principle of harmony comes into being through the power of the imagination; that it is by means of the imagination that this universal harmony is revealed; that it is the imagination that sustains that harmony when it is threatened and reconstructs it when it is destroyed. Just where this creative, revelatory, and restorative imagination is said to reside varies. Most texts imply that it lies in the minds of the gods and goddesses, who are understood to have fashioned the world in their own image by thinking it into existence, to have entered into and enlivened it, and to have re-formed it when necessary. But Vedic texts suggest, too, that the power of imagination by which the gods as divine artists create the physical world is the same effective force by which a human poet forms verbal images in the mind and sings them forth in the form of metrical verse; a priest establishes a ceremonial domain and constructs thereon a dramatic universe; and a contemplative sage recognizes within his own heart the identity of the soul with the eternal, divine ground of being. Thus, it is the imagination that joins the human spirit with ultimate reality itself. Those texts further imply the idea that each of these divine and human forms of expression reflects in its own way that transcendent, hidden, unified principle of harmony and order that supports and directs the movements of all things. According to this view, even the many gods and goddesses are diverse images of this universal artfulness of being. From this perspective, the universe in all its marvelous mystery yet fragile complexity, and including both inward as well outward realms, is a divine work of imaginative art.
Songs sung by those poetic bards present a number of metaphors to rep-resent that integral principle and ground of being on which that universe rests and from which all things arise: it is, for example, the cosmic wheel on which all things of the universe turn; it is the universal pillar that supports all beings; it is the universal Word of which all words are different expressions; it is the single divine body whose various limbs and organs form the different realms and diverse aspects of the divine, physical, social, and moral cosmos. In any case, it is through this ordered yet dynamic unifying principle that everything in the universe fits together properly. Sometimes Vedic hymns refer to it as the "One" or the "One Reality," or simply as "It."
Earlier Vedic texts tend to describe that unified integrative principle with the term Rta, a rich and multivalent Sanskrit word often translated into English by such phrases as "universal law" or "cosmic order.'" (Because it refers to a Vedic term for the Absolute, this word will be capitalized and appear in roman rather than italic script throughout the following pages.) Rta is that hidden structure on which the divine, physical, and moral worlds are founded, through which they are inextricably connected, and by which they are sustained. The cosmic order which holds all things together, Rta has also been translated as "truth."
As the foundational principle of order as well as the source and reference of normative behavior, the Vedic concept of Rta can rightly be under-stood to stand as the precursor to the classical South Asian notion of dharma, the ontological principle of integrity and set of ethical prescriptions that sustain the universe as a whole.
But perhaps such translations of Rta as "cosmic order" or "universal truth" are in a way too static. The word could also be rendered into English by phrases suggesting an integrated and even artistic principle of being, for it connotes a universal quality in which different elements fit together in a balanced and structured yet dynamic way. The word rta literally means "that which has moved" in a fitting manner.' It thus suggests both a correctness or smooth compatibility of things as well as the principle of balance and integrity that gives foundation to that compatibility. It may be of interest to note in this regard that the word rta is a distant relative not only of the English rite and thus of ritual (both of which signify actions that lend or establish dramatic order to the disorder of life as it is often experienced), but also of the English harmony as well as of art and thus of artful.'
The title of this book--The Artful Universe—therefore presents a play on words. By using the word universe I refer to the Vedic idea that all things in the various realms of a sacred, meaningful existence are in some way connected to each other in a mysterious and complicated yet systematic whole. By artful I want to suggest not only the general notion that Rea is universal truth and ritual order, but also that this structure of being is one in which all things fit together properly, smoothly, and harmoniously—"artistically," if you will. As the universal (artistic) principle that gives rise to and joins all things together into a smoothly fitting whole, Rta stands as the foundation of the world as universe rather than as chaotic multiverse. As we will see, the key elements of the early Vedic idea of Rta—arguably one of the most important of all Vedic concepts'—find expression in later Vedic literatures as Brahman, the expansive and pervasive ground of being that supports all things, and as Atman, the universal Self standing as the single subject of which the many objects of the world are different embodiments.
Drawing on this play on words, one of the points I will make in the fol-lowing pages, then, is this: because Rta establishes a harmonious whole, the perfect and perfected world is, in a sense, an "artful universe." Similarly, that person—deity, poet, priest, contemplative sage—who sees, expresses, adheres to, and supports Rta thereby participates in this universal artistry and may be said therefore to be an "artist" whose actions support and strengthen that world as universe against the fracturing forces that pull it into a multiverse.
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