Saturday, November 10, 2007

Heraclitus is using the old language of the Mysteries

Heraclitus Sri Aurobindo
The mystical language has always this disadvantage that it readily becomes obscure, meaningless or even misleading to those who have not the secret and to posterity a riddle. Mr. Ranade tells us that it is impossible to make out what Heraclitus meant when he said, “The gods are mortals, men immortals.” But is it quite impossible if we do not cut off this thinker from the earlier thought of the mystics?
The Vedic Rishi also invokes the Dawn, “0 goddess and human”; the gods in the Veda are constantly addressed as “men”, the same words are traditionally applied to indicate men and immortals. The immanence of the immortal principle in man, the descent of the gods into the workings of mortality was almost the fundamental idea of the mystics. Heraclitus, likewise, seems to recognise the inextricable unity of the eternal and the transitory, that which is for ever and yet seems to exist only in this strife and change which is a continual dying. The gods manifest themselves as things that continually change and perish; man is in principle an eternal being.
Heraclitus does not really deal in barren antitheses; his method is a statement of antinomies and an adumbrating of their reconciliation in the very terms of opposition. Thus when he says the name of the bow (bio’s) is life (bi’os), but its work is death, obviously he intends no mere barren play upon words; he speaks of that principle of war, father of all and king of all, which makes cosmic existence an apparent process of life, but an actual process of death. The Upanishads seized hold of the same truth when they declared life to be the dominion of King Death, described it as the opposite of immortality and even related that all life and existence here were first created by Death for his food.
Unless we bear in mind this pregnant and symbolic character of Heraclitus’ language we are likely to sterilise his thought by giving it a too literal sense. Heraclitus praises the “dry soul” as the wisest and best, but, he says, it is a pleasure and satisfaction to souls to become moist. This inclination of the soul to its natural delight in a sort of wine-drenched laxity must be discouraged; for Dionysus the wine-god and Hades, the Lord of Death, the Lord of the dark underworld, are one and the same deity.
Professor Ranade takes this eulogy of the dry soul as praise of the dry light of reason; he finds in it a proof that Heraclitus was a rationalist and not a mystic: yet strangely enough he takes the parallel and opposite expressions about the moist soul and Dionysus in a quite different and material sense, as an ethical disapprobation of wine-drinking. Surely, it cannot be so; Heraclitus cannot mean by the dry soul the reason of a sober man and by a moist soul the non-reason or bewildered reason of the drunkard; nor when he says that Hades and Dionysus are the same, is he simply discouraging the drinking of wine as fatal to the health! Evidently he employs here, as always, a figurative and symbolic language because he has to convey a deeper thought for which he finds ordinary language too poor and superficial.
Heraclitus is using the old language of the Mysteries, though in his own new way and for his own individual purpose, when he speaks of Hades and Dionysus and the everliving Fire or of the Furies, the succourers of Justice who will find out the Sun if he oversteps his measure. We miss his sense, if we see in these names of the gods only the poorer superficial meanings of the popular mythological religion. When Heraclitus speaks of the dry or the moist soul, it is of the soul and not the intellect that he is thinking, psuchê and not nous. Psuchê corresponds roughly to the cetas or citta of Indian psychology, nous to buddhi; the dry soul of the Greek thinker to the purified heart-consciousness, šuddhacitta, of the Indian psychologists, which in their experience was the first basis for a purified intellect, višuddhabuddhi.
The moist soul is that which allows itself to be perturbed by the impure wine of sense ecstasy, emotional excitement, an obscure impulse and inspiration whose source is from a dark underworld. Dionysus is the god of this wine-born ecstasy, the god of the Bacchic mysteries, — of the “walkers in the night, mages, bacchanals, mystics”: therefore Heraclitus says that Dionysus and Hades are one. In an opposite sense the ecstatic devotee of the Bhakti path in India reproaches the exclusive seeker by the way of thought- discernment with his “dry knowledge”, using Heraclitus’ epithet, but with a pejorative and not a laudatory significance.
To ignore the influence of the mystic thought and its methods of self-expression on the intellectual thinking of the Greeks from Pythagoras to Plato is to falsify the historical procession of the human mind. It was enveloped at first in the symbolic, intuitive, esoteric style and discipline of the Mystics, — Vedic and Vedantic seers, Orphic secret teachers, Egyptian priests. From that veil it emerged along the path of a metaphysical philosophy still related to the Mystics by the source of its fundamental ideas, its first aphoristic and cryptic style, its attempt to seize directly upon truth by intellectual vision rather than arrive at it by careful ratiocination, but nevertheless intellectual in its method and aim.
This is the first period of the Darshanas in India, in Greece of the early intellectual thinkers. Afterwards came the full tide of philosophic rationalism, Buddha or the Buddhists and the logical philosophers in India, in Greece the Sophists and Socrates with all their splendid progeny; with them the intellectual method did not indeed begin, but came to its own and grew to its fullness. Heraclitus belongs to the transition, not to the noontide of the reason; he is even its most characteristic representative. Hence his cryptic style, hence his brief and burdened thought and the difficulty we feel when we try to clarify and entirely rationalise his significances. The ignoring of the Mystics, our pristine fathers, purve pitarah, is the great defect of the modem account of our thought-evolution. Page-340 Location: Home > E-Library > Works Of Sri Aurobindo > Supramental Manifestation Volume-16 > Heraclitus

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