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Metaphor, Metonymy & tantric interpretations – I

“metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

In a post last year I made a brief mention of Lakoff & Johnson’s groundbreaking work on embodiment & metaphors in relation to understanding tantric terms. This is a theme I want to expand on in 2011, so for the first post in this series, I’m going to discuss some thoughts I had after reading A.K Ramanujan’s famous essay “Is there an Indian way of thinking”.

Until recently, scholars have tended to think of metaphors in terms of literary and poetic devices, and western philosophy has, for the most part (with a few notable exceptions, such as Nietzsche) been dismissive of metaphors. A popular understanding of metaphors (often found in occult texts) is that they can only ever partial attempts to depict a basically ineffable reality – or that they are at best misleading, and at worst, lies. However, this view of metaphors is changing, largely thanks to the emergence of Cognitive Linguistics, whose exponents emphasise how both metaphor and metonymy are not merely ornamental figures of speech and writing but play a crucial role in our ability to conceptualise. Both metaphor and metonymy have been shown to be rooted in both human bodily experience and how we interact with our environments. Hence Mark Johnson’s explanation of metaphor is that it is:

“… a pervasive mode of understanding by which we project patterns from one domain of experience in order to structure another domain of a different kind. So conceived, metaphor is not merely a linguistic mode of expression; rather, it is one of the chief cognitive structures by which we are able to have coherent, ordered experiences that we can reason about and make sense of. Through metaphor, we make use of patterns that obtain in our physical experience to organize our more abstract understanding.”

Is there an Indian way of thinking?
In posing this question, Ramanujan demonstrates how the meaning of the question changes depending on which word (is, there, an, Indian, way of thinking) is stressed. He goes on to discuss various ways that Indian thinking has been characterised – in terms of hypocrisy, inconsistency, an “inability to distinguish between self and not-self, no clear notion of universality,

“I think cultures (may be said to) have overall tendencies (for whatever complex reasons) – tendencies to idealise, and think in terms of, either the context-free or the context-sensitive kind of rules. Actual behaviour may be more complex, though the rules they think with are a crucial factor in guiding the behaviour. In cultures like India’s, the context-sensitive kind of rule is the preferred formulation. Manu … explicitly says: ‘[A king] who knows the sacred law, must imagine into the laws of caste (jati), of districts, of guilds, and of families, and [thus] settle the law of each’ (Manu 7.41).”

Ramanujan goes on to discuss how texts may appear (particularly to non-Indians) to be historically anonymous, but that their contexts, uses etc., are explicit – that stories are “encased in a metastory” – that within a text, one story provides the context for another within it: “not only does the outer frame-story motivate the inner sub-story; the inner story illuminates the outer as well.” Ramanujan highlights the point that Indian poems can be understood as ecosystems in which the human agent’s activities and feelings are a part – that “to describe the exterior landscape is also to inscribe the interior landscape … Scene and Agent are one; they are metonyms for one another.”

For India, Ramanujan proposes, the western universals – such as the opposition between Nature and Culture, space & time – are not neutral, but have properties depending on context – that there is a constant flow of substance – from context to object, from non-self to self, through all types of activities (from breathing to art). He argues that this emphasis on context is related to the Indian concern with jati “the logic of classes, of genera and species.”

By way of contrast, Ramanujan points out that although all societies have context-sensitive behaviour/rules – but that the “dominant” ideal – as in western culture – may be the “context-free”. He cites the ideals of egalitarian democracy and Protestant Christianity as emphasising both the universal and the unique – where every person is both equal and like any other – whatever the context of their circumstances. Both technology (interchangeable parts) and post-Renaissance Science (universal laws and facts) intensify the bias towards the context-free. He says that in context-free societies the counter-movements tend to lean towards the context-sensitive (holistic medicine for example) whereas in context-sensitive-dominant cultures (such as India) “the dream is to be free of context” (hence mokasa – release, for example).

In closing his essay, Ramanujan notes that “modernisation” in India can be seen as a move (at least in principle) towards the context-free, and points out that cross-cultural borrowings accomodate towards the prevailing tendency. Two examples of this process which spring to mind are the way that highly context-dependent Hindu “systems” become “generalised” for the benefit of both Western and modern Indian readers, and the process by which meditation has become detached from its original esoteric contexts and turned into a universal (and thereby accessible) technique.

One reason that Ramanujan’s essay interests me is that his description of a western tendency towards an (apparently) context-free, universalised knowledge which is divorced from “culture” is a theme I have been exploring in the ordering-machine series. It strikes me that a common problem for occultists approaching tantra is the tendency to approach it in terms of the familiar western approach to knowledge, i.e. to fit it into a familiar schema, rather than exploring its differences from western occultism. The “total knowledge system” which I quoted Regardie describing in the last Ordering-Machine post tends to subordinate local concepts into its own universal schema – a process which is inherently reductionist and orientalist (in the sense that it assumes that the western occult understanding of a concept is superior to the subaltern perspective of the originating context).

Two common issues which arise in relation to the interpretation of tantric imagery are the tendency to take metaphors literally, and the tendency to conflate themes and terminologies from different religious cultural contexts in the reification of a homogenous explanation – a strategy which Olav Hammer (2004) terms Synonymization.

One of the best-known examples of taking a tantric metaphor literally is the statement Charles Leadbeater makes in his book The Chakras. When writing of the Sahasrara or “Crown” chakra, he says:

“It is described in Indian books as thousand-petalled, and really this is not very far from the truth, the number of the radiations of its primary force in the outer circle being nine hundred and sixty.”

To which Sir John Woodroffe (aka “Arthur Avalon”) made a rejoinder in a later edition of The Serpent Power:

“…both the “Lotuses” described in the Hindu books and the number of their petals is accounted for by the author, who substitutes for the Svadhisthana centre a six-petalled lotus at the spleen, and corrects the number of petals of the lotus in the head, which he says is not a thousand, as the books of this Yoga say, “but exactly 960″.”
The Serpent Power, p7, 1919

Woodroffe goes on to say, in a footnote, that “Thousand” is here, only symbolic of magnitude. i.e. not literally, a thousand.

Not only is Leadbeater taking a metaphorical statement (“thousand-petalled” lotus) as a literal description of reality, he is also playing the all-too familiar game of occult oneupmanship by positioning himself as a more authoritive source than the “Hindu books” because, after all, he has psychically seen the Crown Chakra and counted its petals.

Synonymization, according to Hammer, is related to the process of pattern-making. Whereas the latter, for Hammer, involves a reduction of differences between say, myth A in one culture, and Myth B in another, or ritual A in one tradition and ritual B in another tradition, synonimization erases difference between different religious terminologies – for example, an author might assert that the Hindu concept of prana is fundamentally the same as the Chinese Ch’i or Reich’s “Orgone Energy”, as Mesmer’s “Magnetism” and so on. This kind of conflation obviously draws on the popularity of perennialism – the idea that all religions are saying the same thing, aimed at the same goal, or ultimately derive from the same source, and often, according to Hammer, takes the form of “foreign” terms interspersed into an English text (usually without qualification).

In the next post in this series, I’ll take a look at some recent scholarship which investigates the relationship between context and metaphor in understanding particular forms of tantric praxis.

Jan Fries, Kali Kaula: A Manual of Tantric Magick (Avalonia, 2010)
Denise Green, Metonymy in contemporary art: a new paradigm (Univ. Minnesota Press, 2005)
Olav Hammer, Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age (Brill, 2004)
Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (Univ. Chicago Press, 1987)
McKim Marriott (ed) India through Hindu Categories (Sage Publications, 1990)
Gary Palmer, Toward a Theory of Cultural Linguistics (Univ. Texas Press, 1996)

One comment

  1. Don Julian
    Posted April 22nd 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    for example, an author might assert that the Hindu concept of prana is fundamentally the same as the Chinese Ch’i or Reich’s “Orgone Energy”, as Mesmer’s “Magnetism” and so on. This kind of conflation obviously draws on the popularity of perennialism – the idea that all religions are saying the same thing, aimed at the same goal, or ultimately derive from the same source, and often, according to Hammer, takes the form of “foreign” terms interspersed into an English text (usually without qualification).

    Is it necessarily always wrong to compare these different concepts? Is it wrong to begin with the assumption that it is possible that different cultures have different words and ways of interacting with something that is objectively there or at least a common experience to a lot of humans cross-culturally (in this case prana/chi/orgone/magnetic fluid etc)? This isn’t necessarily reductionist, neither is it necessarily perennialist in the sense of ‘there is only one god’.