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Mutants and Mystics: A Book Excerpt
There is also the deeper historical fact that the idea of a superhuman is finally an ancient religious trope, not a political, American, or even especially Western one. Indeed, we could easily trace the notion back to what many believe to be the "first" and most primordial figure of the history of religions: the shaman. The shaman's mystical calling through an initiatory crisis, often around puberty (mental illness, anomalous sexuality, near-death experience via visionary dismemberment or descent into the underworld, lightning strike), and subsequent magical powers (clairvoyance, soul flight, luminous energies, the acquisition of animal languages, magical battle with demons and black magicians) look a lot like our modern superhero myths. Numerous other examples, moreover, could easily be found in the history of Western mystical literature, where notions of the Divine Man abound, from Christianity's famous man-god and the Divine Intellect (nous) of the philosopher-mystic Plotinus through Goethe's figure of Faust to Ralph Waldo Emerson's Oversoul and hymn to humanity as "a god in ruins."
Similar notions of humanity's secret identity can easily be found in Asia as well. In ancient and medieval India, for example, we encounter the lore around the Siddhas or "perfected ones" of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions and the literally towering figures of Jainism (portrayed still today in immense multistory-tall standing stone figures), whose supercosmic conception of the human form and its siddhis or "perfected powers" make almost anything in the superhero comics look downright banal. Indeed, one such founding Jain teacher is known as Mahavira, literally, the "Great Hero," or, with just a little spinning, the "Superhero."
Closer to the present, an Indian freedom fighter turned spiritual teacher by the name of Aurobindo Ghose taught an "integral yoga" that combined evolution and Indian philosophy. Aurobindo believed that such a yoga would eventually conjure a superconsciousness that would "descend" into this world in order to integrate the upper and lower worlds and finally enable humanity to realize its own inherent divinity. He named this the Supermind and suggested that it would descend to help evolve a new "supernormal" species of "gnostic beings" that he collectively called the Superman. Yes, that's right: the Superman. Aurobindo, of course, was well aware of Nietzsche's earlier expression, and he meant something entirely different by his own: he meant a humanity that has taken full possession of its spiritual nature, a supernature that includes all sorts of psychical powers (the siddhis again), with which Aurobindo personally experimented and then classified and cataloged with incredible precision in his yoga journals. Aurobindo, in short, was writing out and practicing the Superman a good two decades before Siegel and Schuster came on the scene in 1938.
And on and on we could go through culture after culture. So, no, the general idea of a superman is not new, and no, it has no necessary connection to Nazism, or any other political or religious system. Of course, the American Superman displays his own nationalist dimensions. All that red, white, and blue works on many levels, including the obvious and repeatedly stated one of representing "truth, justice, and the American way." I am not denying the obvious. I am simply suggesting that there is also a "secret life" to Superman that extends far, far beyond his latest incarnation and "descent" (or crash landing) into American pop culture.
Jeffrey J. Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University. He is the author of six books, including Esalen: America and The Religion of No Religion and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred.