Parts One and Two of Silence Maestas‘ series on the parallels between bhakti and devotional polytheism can be found here and here. Enjoy!
It is time to shift the conversation to devotional polytheism and the parallels that are informed by raganuga bhakti sadhana. Polytheistic faiths have complex cycles of interconnecting stories. Though some modern polytheistic traditions have a wealth of sources describing these stories, they are not regarded as full or complete given the combined actions of time, forgetfulness, and deliberate destruction. Even so, the deities and sacred figures we revere and love are known to have complex relationships among themselves, with humanity, with various aspects of creation, with cosmic forces, and so forth. Polytheism is saturated with nuanced relationships. To downplay this complexity or to ignore the very immediate potential for developing complex relationships with our gods is to miss one of the qualities of polytheism – and indeed of religious experience in general – entirely.
When a devotional practitioner makes the choice to engage with a deity, they become a conscious part of the network of relationships that deity is part of. Nuanced awareness of this participation grows with time and dedicated practice. With time, practice, and study the practitioner may discover a paradigmatic individual within the tradition(s) they draw upon. This paradigm helps them contextualize their experiences by providing a map or model. Their highly personal experiences are revealed to have a sacred, cosmic counterpart. The practitioner feels even more deeply embedded in the sacred network of relationships that contains their chosen Beloved.
It should be noted that feeling embedded in a network of relationships and of experiencing oneself as intimately part of the universe of one’s tradition is not simply the product of a deliberate and conscious choice made of the part of the practitioner. If religious identification were so simple, no one would ever struggle with affiliation with one tradition or another. The process of conversion would be no more complex then the choice of what color shirt to wear. The choice of religious identification and worldview affiliation is a nuanced process of evaluation using information gleaned from many different senses, including those subtle and nameless emotional resonances that repel or draw us towards highly specific divine manifestations. The experience of aligning with a specific paradigmatic individual within one’s particular tradition is as delicate and profound as one’s alignment with the religious tradition itself. If, for instance, I were Heathen (I am not), I might say “I am a Heathen, I am part of Heathenry, Heathenry is part of me.” Am I the sole manifest embodiment of Heathenry? Of course not. But I am one possible guise of Heathenry in this world, one portal by which others can interact with Heathenry, one point of contact by which my wondering mind can explore the profound and timeless truths of the Heathen current. Though I am a mortal individual, I can have a (more or less) eternal identity living within me.
Achieving this level of alignment with the current of a tradition is not simple or fast and whatever identification I feel with Heathenry (for instance) upon my initial exploration of the path is going to become deeper, more complex, and considerably more personal and immediate the longer I engage with it. It is not a process that can be consciously driven forward simply for wanting to. Indeed, since as a Heathen I believe that Heathenry is full of conscious beings with a will and agenda of their own, the process of identity alignment is as much a result of Their decision as it is mine. This is the much the same process that occurs when a practitioner becomes aligned with a paradigmatic individual. Other language might be used to describe the experience of it but if the outcome is functionally the same then variation of terminology may be of little practical consequence to the person encountering an intimate identification with a sacred personality.
Though the identification of devotional polytheists with various paradigmatic individuals is at the moment a topic of shared discussion, I am entirely certain that it is not new. What we have lacked, perhaps, are the means to discuss this among similar practitioners and enough gumption to do so with a volume that others might hear and respond. We have also lacked the time required for such detailed fruition to occur; this fullness is being realized at this moment and will no doubt continue to be. What we currently lack is a vocabulary that allows convenient and nuanced conversation about this particular phenomenon that sometimes arises over the course of a long and dedicated practice. We also lack the kind of comprehensive practice, commentary, and theory that might help explain the value of such an occurrence when it does happen. Though I have used a tradition outside of those typically placed in the category of modern polytheism, I believe that I have been able to offer some explanation and proof that such a degree of identification can, does, and will again happen within a devotional practice.
Bhakti, like devotional polytheism, has been unfairly characterized by uninformed observers and critical commentators. Devotional polytheism has a reputation for expressive emotionality without structure, discipline, or purpose. In a similar vein, bhakti has been said to have no concrete practice or guided discipline. Both of these assumptions are untrue. The actions undertaken by the devotional polytheist as motivated by their emotional response to their chosen deities are continually questioned and refined in order to become a more perfected vessel of expression. Consistent self-exploration is undertaken to uproot the psychological barriers that prevent effective action and arrest increasing emotional connection. Though devotional polytheists do not draw from an extensive body of practical knowledge in the way that modern bhaktas do, we nonetheless seek out supportive peers, experienced practitioners, and elders within our respective traditions. There is an on-going quest to find more structure and more support, not less. This is because we understand, however unconsciously, that structure and support lead to coherent, conscious practice, which in turn is better able to facilitate the emotionally rich spiritual experiences we crave.
Coming to an identification with a sacred figure is not, in and of itself, an indication of a flawed practice or a flawed mind. In fact, seeing oneself as intimately connected to the sacred cycle of meaning and narrative that our deities are embedded in is just one of several possible positive outcomes of devotional practice. It is achieved by a softening of individualistic ego-identity and a merging with those personalities believed to have close, loving relationships with the chosen Beloved. This blended identification is one possible way of bridging the worlds of perception, feeling, and experience, of mingling this world and any possible Other.
It is worth reiterating that this merged identification is not a product of early practice, at least according to the devotional authorities of the Hindu bhakti tradition. I am inclined to agree with them. However, given that a person’s chosen Beloved may indicate the practitioner’s identification with a sacred personality at any point in their relationship, some flexibility in the application of this observation might be required. That said, being aware of one’s potential is in no way a shortcut through the dedicated practice that must precede such embodiment. This too is counseled by the bhakti authorities; one must follow the injunctions of scripture and teacher and tradition before the natural affinity of identification with a sacred personality will develop in the practitioner’s heart.
This lengthy, but by no means exhaustive, article is not specifically meant as justification for anyone’s individual beliefs regarding their spiritual life or practice. It is, however, an informed look at the precedents for similar occurrences in other, related, devotional currents. Ideally, this information can be used as a template or map against which to measure one’s own exploration through spiritual territory. The path trod by countless other lovers can help lead us through an emotional landscape suffused with divinity in all its forms.
August 21, 2014
(Epilogue: And me? Who are the paradigmatic individuals that inform my practice? What master of devotion do I worship the footsteps of?
I bow down to the holy, grace-filled steps of Mirabai, princess who sacrificed everything to be immersed in the presence of her most sacred Beloved. I recall her mad wanderings and ecstatic cries.
I bow down to the effulgent footsteps of Andal who clothed the Lord with her own garland and claimed him as hers. I recall her marriage to her incomparable Lord.
I humbly recall the disguises of Radha’s joy when he dressed for her pleasure. Krishna, the world’s greatest lover, was speechless and confounded by the love of his love.
I am speechless and cowed by the radiant loyalty of the worthy Sigyn, whose font of renewal refreshes the dullest soul and the most wavering heart.)