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Dialogue III: On the pleasures of initiation

“Initiation is of three kinds: Initiation by touch (Sparsa), Initiation by sight (Drksamjna) and Initiation by thought (Manasa) – all these three are done without Rituals and without exertions. O My Beloved! Initiation and instruction by touch is likened to the slow nourishing of its young with the warmth of its wings. O Paramesvari! Initiation and instruction by sight is like the nourishing of its young by the fish through its seeing alone. Initiation and instruction by thought is like the nourishing of its young by the tortoise by only thinking of them.”
Kulanarva Tantra, transl. R.K Rai

“Now I am going to reveal to you this devotion to the Guru, give me your undivided attention. Just as the river Ganges joins the sea with its wealth of water, or the Vedas enter the abode of the Supreme or a chaste wife dedicates her life with its good and bad points to her husband, so he dedicates his heart along with his senses to the family of his Guru and becomes verily the temple of devotion to him. Just as a wife keeps on thinking of her absent husband, the thoughts of the place where his Guru dwells crowd his mind….”
Jnaneshvari (13, 371-375) transl.M.R. Yardi

I recently received a rather plaintive email from a person who’d received an initiation into a loose magical network which I used to be involved with – AMOOKOS (although nowadays it’s more the case that I have a number of friends with whom I share – to various degrees – an affiliation with said network, rather than being actively a “member”). From the few details he gave me, it sounds like the person who did the initiation turned up, performed some kind of ceremony, then promptly disappeared, following up with a couple of “grade papers” (neither of which I’d actually heard of, much less read) and the fledgling “initiate” had had no further contact with him. Unsuprisingly then, he was somewhat confused, and thus was seeking advice on how to get going. Now I do not like giving “advice” – and in particular, I do not like giving “advice” over the internet. But this email led me into some reflections on the subject of initiation.

Whilst I have a degree of empathy with this person’s situation I can’t help wondering what the expectancies between both parties were about what the act of initiation would confer. I’ve come across this kind of scenario before, and it does strike me that the act of initiation – that is, undertaking some kind of initiation ritual, ceremony, or exchange is often treated as as though it affords a kind of phantasmagorical bringing-forth of sudden and eternal change – and thus is given more credence than the idea of initiation occurring within the context of a relationship.

I really don’t see the benefit of an initiation ritual being carried out without some kind of interpersonal commitment between the parties involved – a perspective which has, largely, been shaped by own my experience of initiatory relationships, particularly within the context of a pedagogical relationship – teacher/student, mentor/mentoree, Guru/disciple. Thinking back, what was important for both my experience of my Wiccan initiations and my AMOOKOS diksha was the time that I spent with the high priestess of the coven and Vishvanath (see this post for some earlier reflections on my relationship with the latter). Much of this time wasn’t devoted to the learning of “techniques” or whatever gobbets of wisdom they happened to let drop in unguarded moments, but in “getting-to-know-each-other”; in hanging out, going down the pub, watching tv, going for walks. My high priestess, whenever she had anything particularly important she wanted to say, would insist on us going for a long walk on a beach, or just hiding in the bushes at the bottom of her garden, which made me feel like we were naughty children sharing a secret, but it’s a memory that’s stayed with me. Similarly, with Vishvanath, a lot of the time we spent together was taken up with wandering around the more leafy byways of Leeds 6 at night. In fact, knowing where he lived, I used to find a spot where I could overlook his house, and settle down to wait for him to appear. When he did go in, I’d give him a couple of minutes, then rush up and ring his doorbell, as though it were mere coincidence that I’d just happened to call on him and find him at home. We’d have a cup of tea, chat for hours, I’d tell him all my “mad” thoughts and he was very patient with me. This relationship had begun with me “seeking initiation” but, as our friendship grew, it became much more than a relationship based on me wanting initiation and him granting it to me.

Nowadays, of course, we have all these communication tools to facilitate exchange – skype, email, fartbook, forums, IRC etc., but to my mind, nothing beats face-to-face contact for fostering learning. I was thinking about this when I was writing my last post in the series on heart practice – particularly the quotation from Michael Polyani that: “By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art.” (see also Embodied knowledge – an opening shot for some earlier reflections on learning from another person directly).

But a key quality of this initiatory relationship that I want to focus on is passion. It strikes me that what powers the initiatory relationship is the collision of passions between aspirant and teacher, the eagerness to learn, the searching for knowledge on the part of the aspirant, colliding with the teacher’s passion for her or his own practice, alongside perhaps the desire to share with someone who wants to understand, who seems to “get” what you think is important. It was passion, of a sort, that enabled me to call a phone number I’d found in a back issue of an occult magazine in the late 1970s which led to my first meeting with the Wiccan coven I later joined. I was certainly driven by a passion when I would sit – sometimes for hours – patiently awaiting the return of Vishvanath so I could bug him with my latest set of questions. It is amazing how quickly an initiatory relationship (regardless of whether the relationship is about a “formal” initiation) can become intense to a degree that is often surprising and, at times, disturbing. It’s as though all of one’s hopes, dreams, fears, longings regarding spiritual or magical development (which may have been bubbling under for years) suddenly become focused on one person, who becomes the embodiment of one’s ideals, dreams, fervour. It’s a kind of “opening up” which both necessitates and produces a deep vulnerability, particularly in the aspirant, which might be one reason why, if initiatory relationships go wrong (or are abused by either participant) we find them deeply upsetting. So, dreaming about the other person is not unusual, nor are “shared” dreams. We may become highly sensitised to the slightest gesture; the other’s throwaway words are suddenly filled with heightened meaning. A momentary glance might trigger a wave of bliss, the sense of revelation folding us into a yearned-for but as-yet unglimpsed vastness of significance. In many ways, the emotions I’m pointing to are not unlike those we might feel when falling in love.

Within Indian and other South Asian traditions there is a wealth of material which attests to the intensities and the necessity of this relationship (along with the dangers), as can be found in scriptural texts, and the biographies of adepts and mystics, such as Ramakrishna, Yogananda, and Muktananda. The “Ocean of the Heart” (Kulanarva Tantra) points to the initiatory relationship as a “nourishing” of aspirant by the guru, whilst the quotation from the Jnaneshvari above likens the relationship to that between husband and wife. Both quotations suggest that initiation (as a distinct event) arises out of a progressive relationship, rather than being a one-off event. The Jnaneshvari continues:

Then with his heart filled with great devotional love for his Guru, he practices meditation upon his image. He installs his Guru as the titular deity in his pure heart and himself becomes with his heart and soul all the articles needed for his worship. He installs the linga of Lord Shiva in the form of his Guru in the temple of bliss within the courtyard of knowledge and sprinkles nectar in the form of meditation on him. When the sun of Self-knowledge dawns upon him, he fills his basket in the form of intellect with flowers of righteous feelings and offers hundred thousand flowers to Lord Shiva in the form of his Guru. Taking morning, noon and evening as the holy hours of the day, he burns the incense of the body and waves the lamp of knowledge before him. He makes a food offering to the Guru in the form of union with Brahman and imagining him to be the linga of Lord Shiva, becomes its worshipper.

On occasions his intellect conceives the Guru as the spouse and enjoys his company and love on the bed in the form of the Self. At times his mind becomes so flooded with this love for his Guru that he calls that love the sea of milk. Then he imagines that the happiness resulting from his meditation is the ‘Shesha’ bedstead and the Guru is the Narayana reclining thereon. He imagines himself to be the goddess Lakshmi rubbing His feet and also as Garuda who stands nearby (with folded hands).
Jnaneshvari (13, 386-394)

The slippages between different subject-positions and orientations is a feature often found in Indian texts (see for example this post for some related discussion).

Here is Yogananda’s account of his first meeting with his guru:

“The divine face was the one I had seen in a thousand visions. Those halcyon eyes, in a leonine head with pointed beard and flowing locks, had oft peered through the gloom of my nocturnal reveries, holding a promise I had not fully understood. “O my own, you have come to me!” My guru uttered the words again and again in Bengali, his voice tremulous with joy. “How many years I have waited for you!” We entered a oneness of silence; words seemed the rankest superfluities…”
Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi (pp106-7)

This passage uses the language of immediate attraction and bonding, a sense of fate or destiny unfolding, together with a heartfelt yearning.

I’ve often pondered why the figure of the guru became so central in Indian religosity, particularly from the period of the Upanisads (see see this post), reaching its apotheosis in the tantric traditions, where the distinction between the preceptor and deity becomes so blurred at times, to be almost indistinguishable.

There are two related elements that I want to point towards; firstly that “knowledge” is not really treated as facticity – something which stands apart from us, but something which arises from what can be thought of a digestive process – a taking in and transforming. I’m thinking here of the numerous gustatory metaphors for knowledge in tantric texts- the drinking of nectar (amrita) or the “relishing” of rasa Knowledge is a substance, an activity, a plenitude. Knowledge is divine; a goddess, a god, a sakti – a flashing forth of delight, through touch (sparsa) or glance (darsan). A common theme in tantric texts is the importance of oral transmission of tradition. For example, the Yoginihrdayatantra declares: “Listen, O goddess, to the great secret, the Supreme Heart of the Yogini: out of love for you I will tell you today that which is to be kept well concealed, that which has been taught from ear to ear and so reached the surface of the earth.” (Dyczkowski, 1989, p167) Dyczkowski, in the same volume, notes that many of the early Tantras have been lost, partially due to the relatively short lifespan of the manuscripts, and partially due to “the custom of disposing of the Tantric text once the teacher had explained its meaning to his disciple.” It’s easy to overdetermine the importance of oral transmission – there is plenty of evidence that shows that India had an extensive library culture (attached to temples, royal courts, and monasteries) but there is still, I think, an acknowledgement that esoteric knowledge arises through and within interpersonal exchanges.

Secondly, I would suggest that another reason that the relationship which grows between guru and aspirant is so often homologised with the relationship between deity and devotee, is that the former is a paradigmic exemplar of the latter. Not only is the love – the intensities experienced between disciple and guru transformative in itself – it constitutes the experiential ground for the wider expansive relationship with the world which many tantric texts point towards.

There is, I feel, in the passages I have quoted, a kind of Barthesian Jouissance present. Barthes distinguishes between two forms of pleasure – plaisir and jouissance. Plaisir is a particular pleasure – a conscious enjoyment capable of being expressed in language. It tends to be conservative, accomodating, conformist. Jouissance however, is more diffuse: it is pleasure without seperation; bliss, ecstasy, pure affect. It is an intensity involving a momentary loss of subjectivity, and thus, knows no bounds. It exhausts itself in the present. Whereas plaisir is an everyday pleasure, jouissance is a special moment.

“When I feel the essence of your touch, my streams of tears of joy will make me stammer, my voice will break and my face will blossom out with laughter.”
Utpaldeva, Sivastotravali

There is an attraction, an intensity between guru and aspirant which borders on the erotic, and recalls Battaile’s assertion that the “whole business of eroticism is to strike to the inmost core of the living being, so that the heart stands still. The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity.” Gerard Berita (2009, p98) makes a key point in regard to the link between the erotic and the dissolution of the subject is “that this self-dissolution is inherently transactional. It is always a dissolution in the presence of, and in deference to, and in surrender to another.”

That “other” may be a deity, a person, or a momentary perception of the everyday unfolding into an all-encompassing totality.

To be continued … possibly.

Michael Mayerfeld Bell, Michael E Gardiner (eds) Bakhtin and the Human Sciences: No Last Words (Sage Publications, 1998)
Gerard F. Berita, Guru Love: On the Tropes of Eroticism in the Spiritual Relationship between Master and Disciple (Ph.D thesis, 2009)
Mark S.G. Dyczkowski The Canon of the Saivagama: Tantras of the Western Kaula Tradition (Motilal Banarsidass, 1989)


  1. Xavier Askin
    Posted December 17th 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    So many threads tied together so beautifully! But what about those of us destined never to find the guru, for whatever reason? Peter Lamborn Wilson writes of Khidr (the Green Man or Archangel Gabriel) as the initiator of those who don’t have the good fortune of a human teacher.

    This complexifies the metaphorically erotic nature of the relationship, because one finds oneself taking both roles: the puer who adores the senex, and the senex who nurtures the puer.

    Thank you for such nourishing food for thought.

  2. JennyPeacock
    Posted January 3rd 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Lovely post – I’ve found some of the most beautiful accounts of the teacher-pupil relationship in Sufi poetry; the way Rumi writes about Shams, but also Sufi poetry more generally (like the book I’ve just given you).

    The Conference of the Birds (Farid Ud Din Attar 1177) where a collection of birds go looking for divinity (the Simorgh or Phoenix) and are shown by their leader-bird, a Hoopoe, after a long journey, a reflection of themselves, for instance. The Hoopoe is the “teacher” and the birds learn that “God” is not separate from the universe but is the universe, and in looking at your own reflection (without ego) you can find the divine.