The Rig Veda: Religious Experience and Religious Languages

By Antonio T. De Nicolas, PhD

Oh God, make me realize that the only way to reach you is by getting rid of you. -Meister Eckhart

Aditi, the boundless, is the sky, the air, the mother, the father, the son, all the gods and all the men,
all that is, was, and shall be.
– Rig Veda 1 ,89, 101

Preliminary Notes

The first note I want to write down for the consideration of the reader is this one: Contemporary neurobiology confirms a plurality of intelligence centers in humans in ways that should be very familiar to Hindus all over the world. We do not have just one brain, but several: the reptilian, limbic, visual neo-cortex, conceptual left hemisphere, and the interpreter module; three main brains in the right hemisphere, two in the left hemisphere of the neo-cortex. The first two brains (the reptilian and the limbic are vibrations, while the third one, the visual-neo-cortex, allows us to see three dimensional objects, and it is a language of images that can be interpreted either by sight criteria (the literary cultures) or sound criteria (the oral/audial cultures), as is the case with the Rig Veda. Perception comes to us via the right brain as a whole and the left brain then, selects what it wants or needs. The left brain has access only to the right brain’s global image, not to the world outside. What we call the self is the result of a delay mechanism in the brain itself passing from perception to translation, a virtual reality at best. This is the brain the West calls the rational brain, though it is aware only of a five per cent of the information available, and this is the brain that serves as foundation of all social sciences. In Hindu philosophy this brain (manas) is only one more of the senses, the sixth. The interpreter module has access only to the left brain and it is the receptacle and creator of names, beliefs, theories and ideologies. The main technologies of these two left brains are logic and fantasy, where the subject is the beginning, middle and end of all narratives.

Oral cultures are cyclic; events come around, either as a repetition of before or with some variations, as accounted in music by modulation. In literary cultures events stand on a consecutive, horizontal line called history. How is a member of a literary culture used to history as horizontal and real be able to interpret a text from an oral culture where all events stand on a recurring, a-historical cycle?

How many modern Hindus would it take to bend the horizontal line of history into a round circle of language able to translate the cycles of the earth, water, air and fire as they are experienced?

Answer: As many as they are alive today.

How many rishis would it take to bend the horizontal line of history into a round circle of language able to translate the cycles of the earth, water, air, fire and human life as they are experienced, not in a straight line, but in a cycle, as in the Rig Veda?

Answer: One, the one chanting any Rig Vedic song-poem.

In other words, what is the difference between a rishi of the Rig Veda and a contemporary Hindu? The answer is: obviously, the English language he/she speaks and its presuppositions as embodied by a subject.

Language, any language is a technology that through repetition becomes embodied in the subject, it becomes a habit. It being so, my criticisms in this essay do not involve or are directed to any particular person, but rather my focus is technology, cultural technology. Culture is technology, and technology is culture. Embody a technology and you are gone, the technology takes over your identity and replicates it every time you open your mouth and speak or write. It is mysterious to me that humans have not paid any attention to technology, I mean inner technologies with which we make our lives and without which there is no individual life. Reading is a technology, something you have to forget in order to set it in motion. The same may be said about thinking, imagining, fantasy, memory and so forth. The difference in cultures consists in the predominant use of one of these technologies over the others, and so go decisions, and freedom, mortal and immortal acts, knowledge and ignorance. They are all bound by the technology in use, by the “pilot brain.”

The second note I wish to make is this, what has varna (color) have to do with the Rigvedic people? Contrary to later developments identifying varna with caste, varna, in the Rig Veda, is used to point out the color of the flag of the God the family follows. It has nothing to do with caste. The family, at that time, was the largest group one could study or conquer. How many families did the “Aryan invaders” conquer to deserve the name of conquerors, or invaders? A recent scientific study of links between Indian castes rank and genetic similarities to Europeans, published in Science Daily in May 15, 2001, establishes the following: In India, male members of higher ranking castes are genetically more similar to Europeans, while lower castes are more similar to Asians. Maternally inherited DNA in Indian populations, on the other hand, is overall more similar to Asians than to Europeans, though similarity to Europeans increases with rank. An outcome that seems to support the notion that the West Eurasian immigrants mixing with native populations were mostly male, and that they tended to insert themselves into high ranking positions in the developing Hindu caste system. In the Katha Upanishad we find a Kshatriya instructing a Brahmin, and this could give support to the above thesis, or to another thesis where the immigrant males kill the kshatriyas of a region, marry their wives and become the Brahmins and the highest caste of that region.

Since we have no artifacts of the Rigvedic period and the only witness to it is the written text of the Rig Veda, our primary concern is to mark the neuro-philosophical map of those texts taking into account the interference of the written text on the oral/audial text from where the written text is taken. What is Indra, for example, an external god acting from the outside, doing in the Rig Veda, where all the gods act internally? And so our only source of knowledge is language, and its presuppositions, as used in the Rig Veda, and the experience of which language makes a translation. And with these notes in mind we may start now our essay.

My last advise, and the one I consider most important to this task, is to ask the reader to clean the attic of his/her mind as used by the West. As I already mention the Western mind is bound to reduce the Rig Veda to what can be apprehended with the left brain, and the interpreter module of the reader. The limits of these brains are considerable when trying to read a Rig Vedic song-poem. And consequently the culture of the Rig Veda is either reduced to very little or is covered by ideology. Neither our logics, nor even our musical models are able to grasp and describe what is sounding by language or music from those texts. In music for example, while the Rigvedic musical system uses open and multiple tunings, in the West we have reduced plurality of tuning to one single tuning system, to the point that we have forced music to follow the mathematical sequence of numbers in the division of the musical scale and by doing so we have force music to be out of tune. Remember that the piano we hear with such praises and pleasure is an out of tune instrument. And so let’s go to the Essay now.


The title of this paper is full of paradoxes. Experience connotes the pre-theoretical, the pre-linguistic; yet to speak of religious experience presupposes both that I know in some theoretical way what such an experience is and that such an experience may be comprehended within a language, spoken or written. Paradoxically, if I know what religious experience is, I have already gone beyond the experience to a philosophico-theological explanation of the experience which is termed “religious.” By “religious languages” I mean not merely philosophical or theological systems about God or gods, but all attempts to guide man by doctrine or ritual towards the possession of certain definite kinds of experiences called “religious,” Western as well as Eastern. Our title may then be read as contrasting the experience termed “religious” with the variety of theological cum philosophical explanations of such experiences that give meaning to the term “religious.” The present market place where religious and theological life flourishes seems to warrant this contrast, since there are many peddlers of experiences termed “religious” that do without gods but not without drugs or chanting, while the God of established theologies seems less and less able to generate such experiences. That people are in a religious crisis is obvious. My contention, however, is that while the crisis might appear, from the viewpoint of organized religions, as a crisis of faith, I consider it only a crisis of beliefs. The contemporary human is deeper in a life of faith than may be suspected or even hoped for. The Rig Veda, 3.500 years B.C., seemed to understand the plight of the man of faith when it chanted (10. 151):

1. By Faith is Agni kindled, by Faith his oblation offered.
Full of happiness we rejoice in Faith.

3. Just as the gods had faith even in the powerful asuras (devils)
Make this wish of mine come true to those
Who are generous in the Sacrifice.

4. Protected by Vayu, both men and gods increase
In Faith by Sacrificing.
Men gain Faith through the instilled desires
of the heart
And become richer through Faith.

5. Faith in the early morning, Faith at noon we implore,
Faith at the setting of the Sun.
Faith, increase our Faith.

This song-poem of the Rig Veda raises the questions I want to consider here. The context within which this poem was composed is very similar to that of modern man. The return to faith – to religious experience – is both the happiness and the endless journey of the heart of man. But the increase in faith is usually through belief, a belief which gives birth to personifications of cosmological forces as gods and devils – and which in turn often destroys faith by accepting these surrogates for the Real as the Real itself. Are we then to hold faith and belief to be contradictory? How can we reconcile different beliefs, or even more, how can we reconcile the “faith of the gods even in the powerful asuras“? Is there a way for humans to go deeper into faith by way of beliefs, that is, not by discarding them but by some sort of integration? I think this is possible, if the growth of humans is seen to lie in establishing a dynamic relation between the languages of philosophy and those of religious experience. To this end I will try to propose a theoretical model which will integrate religious languages or theologies with religious experience. In its integrative aspect this model presupposes that the religious character of the experience is not given apart from language, human communication being determined as an effort to convey, in the most general sense, an understanding or an explanation of That. In its complementary aspect, it presupposes that religious languages or explanations may be mutually exclusive (since they cannot be obtained simultaneously by one believer), but they are in no way contradictory.

The model of explanation and growth chosen here is an application of the theoretic model of the life of the Rig Veda – which I have discussed in detail in my book Meditations through the Rig Veda – to the modern humans’ religious experience and its narratives..

The Rigvedic Theoretic Model

There are several reasons for using the Rigvedic model to account for religious experience and religious languages. Since it does not follow the categories of any philosophical system used by Western or Eastern communities, it will hopefully avoid much of the confusion caused by particular philosophical approaches. The Rigvedic model is based on a methodology of context (or intentionality) analysis, and the recognition that language is context-dependent.2 In brief, the Rigvedic text offers four different yet related intentionalities or sources of meaning, which stand as the four basic units for the giving of meaning to human experience. Each of these intentionalities generates its own language, which is linked to the other sub-languages according to an internal ordering relation within the Rigveda. In these terms, Rigvedic man gives meaning to his individual and social life, and accounts for his religious experiences and for the gods who embody those experiences. Furthermore, this intentionality gives man his most difficult task, and makes sense of this task: to sacrifice his own gods in the search for the pure, unlimited, timeless experience that is religious in the strictest sense.

It is a significant epistemological fact that the Rishis (the great philosopher-poets of the Rig Veda) organized the different Gods according to different levels of experiencing within man. Their function is to expedite and explain sense experience; in this they differ in degree but not in kind from the objects of the physical world. As our sensibility becomes more sophisticated, so do our gods; we apprehend what we are ready for. The Rigvedic model, however, reserves the term “religious experience” to a Sacrificial act which “does away with” the Gods when needed, an act conveyed in what I have called the language of Images and Sacrifice. Behind every theological or philosophical system there is an all-embracing image which gives meaning to – that is, organizes in a certain way – the whole of human life as reflected through the language of that theology or philosophy. These images themselves constitute a primary language by means of which the manifold nature of the secondary languages becomes visible; it provides, as well, a way of articulating the relationships of these lesser languages to one another. The all-embracing image under which theologies and philosophies operate is mostly ignored, and it is for this reason that a significant religious dialogue is so difficult to achieve.

With these notes before us, I should like to offer the Rigvedic theoretic model for achieving a synthesis of human action and interaction.

The four basic languages (intentionalities) of the Rig Veda are the Asat (Non-Existence), Sat (Existence), Yajna (Images and Sacrifice) and Embodied (Rita) Vision (dhih). This means that every sentence in the Rg Veda is a case of either ASat, Sat, Yajna or Rita. Each of these basic languages is the interweaving of many other languages, or the result of other context-dependent syntheses. They are internally united through integrating logical structures (Satya) or by means of a radical sacrifice (ritu), in order to lead Rigvedic man to an efficient vision (dhih) – a vision which results from insight – or to an eternal/perfect action (Rita). Thus the activity of structuring the world of experience, and the activity of transcending that structuring, lead Rigvedic families from the sheer possibility of action (Asat-Nirriti) to the eternal efficient act (Rita) which is also immortal (amrita), and always moving.*

*From a philosophical point of view, we may add that the ordering relation of these languages has the formal properties of a partial ordering. It separates three languages, ASat, Sat and Yajna from each other and then unites them within the embodied (Rita), the language of Vision (dhih) as the result of an internal chain of activities, Satya, ritu and dhih. The formal structure so exemplified is called by logicians and mathematicians a non-distributive lattice, or quantum logic.3

The Rigvedic intentional life culminates in the conscious effort by the Rishis to direct human action through the design of formal structures which can support the building of an efficient body of law (Rita) grounded on practical reason (satya, ritu). By the method of integration and complementarity, the Rishis claimed that humans could reach pure experience, in the religious sense, but not without establishing a growth relation between the plurality of explanation and the uniqueness of that experience. Let me exemplify this relational dependence.

The language of Asat (Non-Existence) stands as the ground of all possibility of action, the store house of geometries. It is sheer energy, undifferentiated, boundless. In philosophico-religious terms, we may say that perception, as gathered through the sensorium, is constantly or eternally an undifferentiated ground of all possible forms, possible creations ‘ possible worlds, possible gods. In this sense, Asat, by being sheer potency, can become anything, any object, any world, any god. Geometries (Asat) become forms in the world of Sat.

The language of Asat, however, points out (Rigveda 7.104) a different and recurring aspect of human acting. When any form, any name, any world or any god is created, it is always because of some intentional structuring super- imposed on the undifferentiated ground of experience. Creation takes place at the risk of curtailing human acting and human thinking by reducing both to certain types of actions and the thought structures that give meaning to them. When the formal aspect of experience imposes itself dogmatically on the ground of experience in such a way as to oppose further creations and integrations of names and forms, the Rig Veda condemns this reduction to the realm of Nirriti (non-action), the Asat. In fact, it is even called inhuman (amanusha). The Rig Veda embraces this attitude, in an explanatory sweep, with the image of the Dragon, Vritra – that which covers up and restrains the growth and movement of humans.

The language of Sat in the Rigveda reveals the richness and variety of Rigvedic life, as a multiplicity of ways of experiencing and as a multiplicity of structures to account for such diverse experiences. The language of Sat, in fact, makes obvious the plurality of worlds, of natural elements, the plurality of explanations to account for that multiplicity, and the plurality of images of heroes and gods to give unity to those explanations and their objects. In combination and interaction, these together constitute the diverse, social, Rigvedic world.

The possibility, on the one hand, of continuous human growth, and on the other, of restriction of that growth to certain channels delineated by the intentional structures of the language of Sat, was resolved by the Rishis through the activity described by the language of Images and Sacrifice (Yajna). The impasse in human growth was removed by re gathering the activity of intentional structuring in one instant-moment (ritu) of sheer power of unstructured experience, i.e., by re gathering, on the one hand, the dispersed images of the previous two languages, and on the other, by returning the energy of the synthesis to the ground (Asat) from which springs the geometries, the energy of all creation and perception. Asat. The Non-Existent, is the continuum; it is described as amitaujah, “of unmeasured creative force,” while Vritra, the Dragon, means the activity which covers “that which wishes to exist.” All the gods in the Rig Veda are born with a view to power and act according to the norm within the rational structuring of experience (Satya), but all power is re gathered through the images of sacrifice and becomes effective through the activity of the ritu (r- as the instant flash of vision, and tu- as the moment of new creation).

The language of Embodied Vision (dhih) appears in the Rigveda as the result of the above complementary journey, guiding Rigvedic man in two ways. It is, first, the storehouse of all that has been rightly formed (sukrita) from ancient times (ritam purvyam), and second, it is the guiding principle for a way of acting which should prove efficacious (Ritasya tantuh, or Ritasya dhara – a thread to be woven or a stream to be followed) in an eternal process of creation in which man is both the beginning and the continuation. dhih, Vision or absolute Presence, is the instant flash of enlightenment which emerges as a result of becoming detached from our explanations of experience. The unity of this power/activity appears in the Rig Veda as a result not of rational processes but of internal incitement (su-), produced through insight and the accumulation of insights (manah). The new vision, the total religious experience, in turn creates a new manifestation, expressed in the most comprehensive of all linguistic systems. This process will keep man’s growth, and indeed the actualization of all these worlds, going eternally.

This, in outline, is the Rigvedic model of human experiencing and human growth. In essence, it establishes man as holding the worlds and the gods in his own hand: it is man who makes the gods according to his own image of Reality, and it is man who grows by sacrificing those images. This sacrifice, however, is based on a mutual context-dependence of rival theologies and multiple interpretations. It is through acceptance of this plurality that humans gain their growth and their salvation.

The epistemology implied in these statements presupposes that the phenomenon of man is both a sheer, naked experience and, simultaneously, a multiplicity of explanations. The claim of some theologies is that explanation stands for experience. In contrast, the Rig Veda claims that explanation, as a function of man, stands for itself, and that by integrating the multiplicity of explanations, man may in an auspicious moment become the coincidence of an integrated vision and a total, pure experience. In other words, man is both experience and explanation; he may become a slave of the explanation and give up the richness of experience, or he may give up the explanation as useless and revert to chaotic, unstructured experience. But it is the nature of humans, both to experience and to explain, as it is the nature of a tree to bear fruit.

How this Rigvedic model applies to the present situation in religion and theology will now be tentatively suggested.

God as a Background Animal

The shortest distance between a complex problem and an easy solution is via a scapegoat. In the present religious crisis, the organized churches become such a scapegoat. The fact is that the believer takes one simplified aspect of a theology as the substance of his/her religion, and seeks security and contentment therein. Without intending to condemn or absolve (for the problem is universal), I shall try to point out these aspects of Western religious tradition that have acted upon the believer like the Dragon Vritra of the Rig Veda, that is, like the background animal that covers up (suppresses) man’s possibilities for entering into a full religious life. It should be stressed that the examples given represent only certain aspects of Christianity or Judaism, and by no means the whole content of these religions.

The first point is that Christianity is held to be a message that is to be interpreted by duly constituted authority and passed down the hierarchical ladder to the family of Christians. The attitude of Christians is a predisposition to pay more attention to the explanation (which is subsequent and derivative) than to the experience (which is primary and essential). Any Westerner who shares a Judeo- Christian background will be incline to regard any other interpretation of religious experience as a rival system of thought, a competing ideology, or a false religion. The reason for this is that Christianity is a religion of Revelation, and revelation, communicated through words, puts upon the believer the burden of accepting the truth on the basis of derivative and indirect evidence. These statements of truth become in many ways an obsession; claims for accuracy of transmission from the original sources, exactness of meaning, elimination and condemnation of deviant interpretations are accompanied by the proliferation of hair-splitting distinctions and obscure theological subtleties.

It is also true that Christianity appeals to the living experience of Christ-within-us, which should transcend all conceptual formulations. But one has to be ever careful, for the Christian experience is inseparable from participation in the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the collective life of the Church. To experience in Christian terms is not merely to experience on the individual psychological level, but to “experience theologically with the Church” (sentire cum Ecclesia). Paradoxically, however, when the content of a religious experience is transformed into the content of a statement, it is falsified. One ceases to grasp and affirm the naked experience; one grasps and affirms instead a form of words that derives its plausibility from an internal logical coherence, not from direct contact. What this amounts to is that the believer in such gods has stopped short of authentic religious experience. He has settled, with a sense of security, into a cocoon woven of belief in the correctness of his position, confidence that he belongs to the saved, certainty that he knows the meaning and purpose of this world, and hope that merits and demerits will get their due in the next life. Or if this is not so, he may choose a way of anxious insecurity fueled by a struggle against doubt, trying painfully to conform to the laws of morality, and seeking in the sacraments alleviation of his guilt and a prop for his weaknesses. God cannot but fail such a believer, for his god has become the “animal” (the Dragon, Vritra) that holds him down, preventing his movement and growth. With such a god, who needs the devil?

This attitude, though based on the model and ethos of Roman Catholic Christianity, is not, of course, to be taken as what Catholicism is all about, nor is it by any means exclusively Catholic. It is, rather, an attitude adopted by many believers, in both East and West; it is universal.

The Multiplicity of Religious Explanations: Religion with God and Without God

The Rigvedic model offered, through the language of Sat (Existence), is a multiplicity of gods and heroes needed to account for the sensory experience of the men of that time. Gods, heroes, natural powers, magic, sorcery, demonology, appear simultaneously as many different explanations of an experience which is ekam, One. “The poets speak in many ways of what is One only … ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti (Rigveda 1. 164.46). In an era of instant communication, the market place of religious beliefs is overcrowded with different doctrines purporting to explain the same transcendent experience of total unity. In fact, the multiplicity of explanations is such that it is almost impossible to find a common ground or gather them together under a traditional banner, except in an artificial way. What do we mean by Christianity, for example? Christian Theology, ethics, mysticism, ritual, The Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Churches, the Protestantism of Luther, or of Fundamentalism, or of Bonhoeffer, or of the God-is-dead School, the Catholicism of St. Thomas, St. Augustine, Meister Eckhart, the Fathers of the Church, the “pure” Christianity of the Gospels, a demythologized Christianity, or a social Gospel? The list is endless. The same may be said of magic and demonology recently revived, American or Indian Hinduism, and the various forms of Buddhism, – the Theravada Buddhism of Ceylon, Burmese or Tibetan, Tantric or Pure Land Buddhism, the Zen of Japan or the more romanticized form of American Zen. Comparative studies among this multiplicity of explanations at the level of their phenomenological appearance become impossible. All one can do is simply affirm the fact of multiplicity, and look for hidden unities elsewhere. For all those interpretations are ways of searching for, or claiming some kind of unified, total, integral experience which most, if not all, name religious. The interpretations differ in the claims they make about religious experience, but more significantly, they differ in the value they give to the interpretative tools they use. Some of these interpretations take the form of dogma, an established God with certain attributes, an organized world picture, a moral ethic. The result is either a return to the attitude of the Asat (Non-Existence) and Nirriti (non-growth), or perhaps, as an alternative, to skepticism or agnosticism. As the Rig Veda notes, “What God shall we adore,” (10.121) or “Whom, then, shall we honor?” (8.89.3) The multiplicity of explanations seems, in any case, to stand in the way of human growth . . . unless we go a step further and realize that behind every explanation lurks the Dragon, standing for the possibility that man, with his desires, capacities and fears, will institutionalize himself into a position of no further progress. This projection of the Dragon, Vritra, into man’s own explanations appears more clearly when we consider the language of Images and Sacrifice.

The Language of Images and Sacrifice: Four Fundamental Images of Western Civilization

The Rigvedic model presents Vritra as the origin of all these worlds. The gods – Soma, lndra, Agni – come out of the belly of the Dragon, or are born for the destruction of the Vritra attitude (vitrahan, 5.40.1; 8.3.17). The death of Vritra is not accomplished in one final act, but has constantly to be repeated: “vritram hanati vritraha, let the one who has killed Vritra once keep doing it again.” (8.89.3) In the Rigvedic context of the Sacrifice (Yajna), the images of Vritra, Agni, Purusha, Prajapati, Visvakarma, the Sun, Soma, etc., all interchange with one another or are “turned around” (vrit- or math-) to show their common origin. The images, archetypes, personifications of the Rigvedic gods become unified in the Sacrifice so that man may continue to live. The Rishis conceived of the Sacrifice of their own images as the perfect action, a way to gain the eternity of life, and it is therefore a willing sacrifice (kriluh or lilavatarana). This activity of sacrificing one’s own creations is ritu, perfect action.

The Sacrifice of the Rig Veda can only be understood as the context within which the diversity of the languages of Asat and Sat unify. The language of Images performs this unifying function, without which the Sacrifice would have no efficacy.

In the West, too, there is, behind the multiplicity of explanations, a unifying Image-synthesis within which the explanations gain meaning, but to which they could also be creatively sacrificed. (To the more common attitude of skepticism, agnosticism or the destruction of belief, the willing Sacrifice of the Rig Veda stands opposed.)

The kind of fundamental images to be sought in Western culture are those “all-embracing, controlling images which have had organizing value for human experience, that is, Western experience.” In this sense, there are four main fundamental images in Western civilization:4 1. The Hierarchic Image; 2. The Atomic-Machine Image; 3. The Organic Image; 4. The Quantum Mechanics Image. All that needs to be said at the moment of these Fundamental Images is that they exist, and somehow organize certain areas of Western human experience, including religion.

The Hierarchic Image

The archetype of this Image is the Roman Catholic Church: one cosmic administrative scheme, in which all things – men, doctrines, even nations – belong to an appointed place in the hierarchy, scaled in an order of subordination. From the apex of Being (God) the God of Being becomes the Being of God (Augustine), creation, law, revelation, life, and grace descend to all believers. Knowledge, power and authority are eternally present in the mind of God; the Church’s function is to elucidate these eternally existing truths and values, and pass them down to man. Man has only one recourse, obedience, for things, according to this image, do not change; they are eternally present “sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper,” as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

To comprehend how this Hierarchical Image has influenced Western life, one has only to peruse the Encyclicals of the Popes, study the history of the Holy Roman Empire, the Feudal Order, the Guild systems, Aristotle’s Physics (to know the part one must know the whole), St. Thomas’ philosophy – and observe the ethics of striving for the highest level of the hierarchy to which we belong. This Hierarchical Image still pervades our culture, viz. the Armed Forces, Government, or the bureaucratic structure of modern corporations. The ordering of power, authority and value is in all these cases unidirectional. The room for change is, in this case, very small, for the password is obedient compliance.

The Atomic-Machine Image

If the 13th Century brought us the Hierarchical Image, the 16th and 17th Centuries organized themselves under the Image of the Atomic-Machine. This is the period of Protestantism, nationalism, democracy, capitalism, classical physics, empiricism and the rebellious individual.

The image of this period changes the relations between man and God: there is no further need for hierarchical transmission from one to the other. Man needs no mediator between himself and God. The atomic, autonomous spiritual person, the Protestant, relates to others – all others – as his equals in the face of God and needs no higher order of clergy; individuals meet in a common place and form a congregation. The Protestant Church follows, in essence, the model of an atomistic machine: it is a congregation ‘ of spiritual atoms linked horizontally. In this image, reality is ascribed to the parts, but not to the system; the relation between the parts is external, not constitutive.

How this Image has affected Western Civilization is also clear. Nationalism, Democracy, Classical Physics, Euclidean Geometry, the philosophies of Locke, Jefferson, Paine, Mill, Descartes, Bacon, Kant, etc., are all efforts to institutionalize the Image of the Atomic-Machine. Ethics, deprived of an external source of values, tries to read them in the laws of Nature, as in physics, or in the sum of particular subjective satisfactions or pleasures, as in Utilitarianism. The gods of the new Image are, in the final analysis, the individual atomic souls who become both judge and jury. The Image of the Atomic-Machine is carefully spelled out in its own Bible: the American Bill of Rights, where the sufficiency of the atomic political atoms is established, while the Constitution of the United States establishes the Government which individual, self-sufficient wills may compose, arbitrated in a common territory, within the matrix of common problems.

The Organic Image

The Organic Image of Western civilization affirms both the whole and the parts, yet the emphasis is primarily on the relations affecting both. This Image is biological and takes as its model the living organism, wherein the whole depends on the parts and the parts are constitutively altered by the whole.

In religious terms, this means that there is no transcendent theism, characteristic of the two previous Images. Instead, we have what Dewey (in A Common Faith) calls a certain quality of response to shared values, and an integrity of search for intellectual and moral enlightenment. This Image is institutionalized in groups like the Humanists, Quakers, Unitarians, and Universalists, where the “religious” in life is expressed in shared interests, social concerns, the promotion of mutual growth among individuals and nations. This new Image has been most influential among intellectuals, being exhibited in non-Euclidean Geometry, Relativity Physics, Field Theory. Gestalt Psychology and the philosophies of Pragmatism, Functionalism, Organicism, Holism and Operationalism. This Image has turned Ethics into pragmatism or contextualism, where man gains supremacy over the gods of the machine by immersing himself in social action, change, universal welfare, and possibilities of growth, both individual and universal.

The Quantum Mechanics Image5

This Image is the most recent in Western civilization and has not as yet had widespread influence. In this Image, Reality is the All, the Totality; the parts of this Totality – subjects and objects (observer, observed and instruments of observation) – are artificially created for purposes of linguistic communication and conceptualization. This artificial separation is considered “within Reality,” not, as in the previous two images, outside of (physical) reality. But since the Totality cannot be apprehended in just one measurement – one language, one sub-pattern of explanation – we need to consider many complementary measurements which contribute to the fullest understanding of Reality. The notion of complementarity, within this Image, has the characteristic that two different observational results are mutually exclusive, that is, they cannot be obtained simultaneously but yet they are not contradictory. The description of Reality, under this Image, changes the concepts of “objectivity,” “subjectivity,” and even of “Understanding” itself, for within this Image, objectification, in the sense of classical physics, is impossible. Subject, instruments, objects become, within this Image, embodied in the intentionality prescribed by the observational setup.3

That man is present to others and exists in his world through his body is a commonplace. The notion of embodiment does not quarrel with this commonplace knowledge, but instead questions the limits, the dimensions, given to that body. Why should each of us understand by “body” what is contained within our bag of skin, the world being what lies outside that bag of skin? Man, as an embodied knower, i.e. as an inhabitant of the “space” of consciousness (not a physical space) in which knower-subject and object-as-known coexist, may extend the limits of his body to include the technology which has created his environment and the environment itself. In the words of Merleau-Ponty, a blind man is present in the world up to the tip of the cane with which he taps the pavement. Or, to use the Rigvedic image, a spider’s web is her living space, just as much a part of her “self” as is her physical organism. A body in use has variable dimensions. What size, however large or small, man chooses to imagine his body to be depends in great part on his disposition to accept uncritically the purely physical limits imposed on his body. These limits are ideological, not real.

The relation of man and God in this Image is quite new. In the previous three Images, the theoretic component of man’s consciousness is supreme in its ability either to “know” a God-out-there, or a God-in-here (for example, the individual consciousness, or the accumulation of collective needs and desires). In the Image of Quantum Mechanics, to “know” in the above sense has no meaning; the aim is to “become.” The theoretic consciousness is no longer the sole arbiter of human destiny. Every explanation, every theoretic state, is only a sub-system within a larger field of action: Total Activity, the Real, naked experience or awareness. From the theoretic we pass to another type of consciousness in which all partial views and insights are gathered up, which creates true experience, the experience without qualification.

The Image of Quantum Mechanics has two significant features for Western culture. On the one hand it seems to return man to experience, total experience, rather than dwell on the explanation of experience, or as Paul Ricoeur complained, “We are forever separated from life by the very function of the sign; we no longer live life but simply designate it; we signify life and are thus definitely withdrawn from it, in the process of interpreting it in a multitude of ways…. And so we are no longer engaged in a practical activity, but in a theoretical inquiry…”6 On the other hand, it establishes man as both total experience and total communication, that is, as both his explanations and his unique experience. He is simultaneously what he builds and what he destroys. Samsara equals Nirvana. The Sacrifice is accomplished when the mind has no longer any objects to cling to, or tags to label with. One is finally home, where nobody asks whence one comes.

It is this Image of Quantum Mechanics that offers the possibility for a meeting of East and West. Such a possibility should also exist for theology, if theologies are able to give up their dogmatic claims and attend to their complementary features.

Religious Experience

We finally come to the end of the journey, the Vision (dhih) embodied in a community of seers (the Rita) who are dedicated to the Sacrifice of dogmatic servitude to the gods, and who willingly give up their reliance on theoretic explanations of life, rather than on the naked experience of living. But living also involves explanations. Man finds liberation by coming to see this complementary dependence, through increasing detachment from explanatory modes, and his growing awareness of a totality of insights, of active Vision, of unity. This life of religious experience is the aim of all religions, East and West. Of such experience even the term religious is redundant. Silence is the most appropriate language, for any verbal definition falls back into the level from which we are trying to escape. Does the Christian mystic, the Zen Master, the Sufi, or Dirghatamas, experience the same thing? The question is meaningless, for it falsely implies that the religious experience is the experience of some thing.

What is original to India and Indic texts is the fact that they were the first of all Indo European languages to record the state of the species at the time. ( See Meditations through the Rig Veda, by Antonio T. de Nicolas, 1978) Through the Rig Veda we became aware of the human matrix of all human acting, a movement that goes from the geometries of the Asat (formless non-existence) to the forms of gods and humans (sat) to the sacrifice of these forms (yajna) and finally to the perpetual movement of all desire (Rita). What this established was a multitude of neurological centers for action (gods), always moving, always acting as model for such actions and decisions to humans. Thus identity and crisis had to discover a hidden witness that was not the actor in every action nor the bearer of pain and suffering. The hidden self, the undivided self, the immutable self was the first and central immutable, though hidden, ONE of all appearance. Secondly, there were no criteria observable by which a self could be fixed and frozen for observation and diagnosis. The world, human life was constant movement, (rita) the movement of the desire of the One dividing itself to create. And on these parameters the world lived in peace, chanted and modulated for greater sensation and innovation. And these people also identified another center of intelligence, that, for us, became the hallowed left hemisphere and home of immortal reason, though for the ancient rishis was just known as manas: a sixth sense used to translate the diverse holographic experiences of the right hemisphere of the neo-cortex. It was not considered a faculty and much less a faculty to reason of things appropriated from the outside, for this brain has no access to the outside but only to the right-brain contents. All these insights have been confirmed in detail by modern discoveries in neuroscience.

But then came Oedipus, a myth from the Middle East and with it the introduction into the species of alphabetic writing and, as a hapless biological consequence, the prominence of the left brain hyper development. The book, The Heresy of Oedipus and the mind/mind split, by Dr. Maria Colavito, is the best description we have of this rapture of original unity, and it answers these and other related questions with the added advantage that it finds its best allies in modern discoveries by the hard sciences in the wiring itself of our multiple human brains. Dr. Colavito places us on the trail of human mythic origins the way Darwin placed us on the trail of the Origin of Species. Where Darwin stops with the evolution of species, Dr. Colavito begins with bio-cultures: a nature/nurture symbiosis on the wings of Selection Theory distributively applied to each one of the five brains we humans have. Bio-cultures in this context is the knowledge of “when to nurture and what is nature ” while at the same time learning, ” what to nurture and when, as we form our own nature.” This is a brand new model on the relation that holds between biology and myth as the original invariants that interact as human evolution and human history, and it serves as explanation of why there is still cultural imperialism in India today.

In concluding this sketch of the impediments which bind the theoretic consciousness to its own constructions, I would like to reiterate that the Judeo-Christian tradition is also aware of the importance of direct experience. The Bible is explicit in its emphasis on the varieties of the ways of “knowing,” insofar as they lead to direct religious experience. St. Paul distinguishes between the “wisdom of words” and another wisdom which is at once a matter of paradox and experience. To attain this higher wisdom, one must be freed from dependence on the “understanding of the prudent” by “the word of the Cross,” which is a means by which God “destroys the wisdom of the wise.” (Cor. 17-23) The Cross is the mysterious power coming from the “foolishness of God” and running through “foolish instruments,” (27ff.) who have completed a kenosis, a self-emptying union with the self-emptying of Christ “obedient unto death.” (Phil. 2:5-11) The supreme and willing Sacrifice is expected in Christianity.

Two prototypes of religious experience, Christ and Buddha, exemplify the perfect pure experience, termed religious, and the integration of the explanatory modes around them. Christ did not reject a single iota from the Jewish Law. He integrated the common life of Nazareth, the work of a carpenter, the austerities of the desert, the dialectics of Jewish and Roman rhetoric, sinners, banquets, sickness, poverty and luxury. He synthesized them all and beyond, to the total sacrifice, unto death, of himself

Buddha, also, integrated the life around him – the prince, the mendicant, the yogi, the recluse in the forest, the tormentor of his own body, the austerities that brought him almost to death, the doctrines of the times – and he too went beyond them, discarding nothing; or rather, he became enlightened as the outcome of his previous integration of the life around him, the institutionalized life he knew so well. Neither Jesus nor Buddha became the pure religious experience which they were without the laboring growth of integration in them – an integration which led them to the limits of the ordinary experiences that satisfied their contemporaries, and beyond. In both cases, integration ended in a willing sacrifice, the sacrifice of reaching unknown ground by going beyond the common paths. Both pure experiences created new worlds, new horizons, new freedoms for man. Let no theologian curtail that freedom. And let us find those seeds in the wide fields of the human species.


1. See A. de Nicolas, Four-Dimensional Man: The Philosophical Methodology of the Rigveda (Bangalore, Dharmaram (follege, 1971). Meditations through the Rg Veda: Four dimensional Man (Last Edition,1976, 2003),Authors Choice Press, Lincoln NE ,2. On context-dependence logic see: Patrick A. Heelan, “Quantum and Classical Logic: Their respective roles,” in Synthese, 21 (1970) pp. 2-33.

3. From a philosophical point of view, we may add that the ordering relation of these languages has the formal properties of a partial ordering. It separates three languages, Asat, Sat and Yajna from each other and then unites them within the embodied (Rita) language of Vision (dhih) as the result of an internal chain of activities, satya, ritu and dhih. The formal structure so exemplified is called by logicians and mathematicians a non-distributive lattice, or quantum logic. A formalization of this logic is offered in the Epilogue to Meditations through the Rg Veda.

4. See the “Three Patterns of Western Civilization,” by Donald W. Rogers in Main Currents in Modern Thought, March-April, 1969. Vol. 25. No. 4, pp. 98-109.

5. See Meditations through the Rg Veda, Chapter 2. The best contemporary effort to make the concepts of Quantum Mechanics understood in ordinary English is offered by Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, trans. from the German by Arnold J. Pomerans, (New York, Harper & Row, 1971).

6. Paul Ricoeur, “Husserl and Wittgenstein on Language,” in Phenomenology and Existentialism (The John Hopkins Press, 1967), p. 217.

Antonio de Nicolas has lived for twelve years in India, both as a student and as a member of the Spanish Foreign Service. He received his Ph.D. from Fordham University, New York.

Antonio T. de Nicolas is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Director of the Bio-Cultural Research Institute in Florida.

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