[This is part four of a four-part essay.]
The debates about the word “polytheism” have led to a lot of negative feelings within the pagan and heathen communities, caused in part by the sweeping judgments and assertions both sides have made about the other. Some monists have taken the attitude that their theology is more enlightened or more fundamentally correct and that anyone who worships a god as a distinct entity without considering it part of a universal whole is somehow unenlightened, misguided or just plain wrong. Some polytheists have taken the attitude that their theology is the only legitimate way to approach the gods, using words such as “impious” or “disrespectful” to describe theologies with monist leanings.
I’ll tackle what I think is wrong with the monist viewpoint first. Monist theology tends in the direction of apophatic or “negative way” mysticism. For instance, Indian monist philosophies use the phrase “neti, neti” (not this, not this) to indicate the non-conceptual nature of ultimate reality. Any mental concept you can think of is inaccurate as a description of the Brahman, so if you say “is the Brahman such-and-such” the only appropriate answer is supposed to be “neti, neti.”
If you apply this logic to monist theology you quickly realize that the terms and assumptions of monist theology are also mental concepts, and therefore just as inadequate to describe the ineffable Absolute as any other mental concepts:
Is the Brahman an ineffable Absolute? Neti, neti.
Phrases like “ineffable Absolute” or “the Source” or “the One” are attempts to use concepts to hint in the general direction of something that is supposed to be beyond all concepts. So how can one fundamentally inadequate hint at the ineffable be more enlightened or accurate than another?
Another example can be found in the Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius, a strange but poetic work of Christian Neoplatonism. According to Pseudo-Dionysius:
Neither does anything that is know it as it is; nor does it know existing things according to existing knowledge; neither can the reason attain to it, nor name it, nor know it; neither is it darkness nor light, nor the false nor the true; nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to it, for although we may affirm or deny the things below it, we can neither affirm nor deny it, inasmuch as the all-perfect and unique Cause of all things transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of Its absolute nature is outside of every negation- free from every limitation and beyond them all.
Pseudo-Dionysius, as a Christian, is obviously a monotheist or perhaps a monotheistic monist, but he’s still using the language of apophatic mysticism. If the ultimate reality is neither darkness nor light, neither false nor true and if no affirmation or negation can be applied to it, then how can it be One rather than Many? Describing it as either one or many is only a convenient fiction in either case.
My personal opinion is that monist theological language was developed by mystics in an attempt to hint at what they saw in their mystical experiences, but that as soon as you begin to describe the ineffable in terms of mental concepts you are no longer operating from within the mystical experience. Therefore, while I see validity in the monist theology I don’t see any intrinsic superiority in it. It is only a way of talking about something no one can really talk about.
Having said that, I also see the strict polytheist opposition to monism as being flawed, because I don’t agree that a monist theology is impious or disrespectful to the gods or that it contradicts the worship of multiple gods in the first place.
In Indian philosophy, the monist Advaita Vedanta school considers the Brahman to be real and the universe of multiplicity we actually experience to be “Maya” or illusion. The Shakta or goddess-oriented sect of Hinduism has been influenced by Vedanta monism, but generally rejects the idea that Maya is illusion. Instead, Shakta theology usually considers the Maha Devi or Great Goddess to be equivalent to the Brahman in Her absolute or Formless state, and to be equivalent to Maya in Her relative or manifested state. The Devi, in turn, can manifest as any number of distinct goddesses such as Kali or Lakshmi. These individual goddesses are all actually the Devi in one sense yet are all distinct goddesses with different personalities and motivations in another sense. Some of them don’t even get along with each other!
In other words, the theology of the Shakta sect shifts fluidly between two seemingly contradictory viewpoints- reality as a formless ineffable unity and reality as a multiplicity of distinct forms. Monism and polytheism. The Brahman is not any more real than Maya — it just depends on your perspective. Shakta worshipers express this concept through the worship of a Great Goddess just like many neopagans do, but where some neopagans see the thousands of different goddesses in the world as being interchangeable names or epithets for a single Goddess, the Shakta sect sees the goddesses as being genuinely distinct beings and aspects of the Maha Devi at the same time.
This is what I refer to as polyvalent thinking, and in my opinion polyvalence is a lot more appropriate for a polytheist theology than a binary “either/or” type of logic. That doesn’t mean that all monists should acknowledge the validity of strict polytheism or that all strict polytheists should acknowledge the validity of monism — polyvalence means that you accept the simultaneous validity of multiple perspectives, not that you automatically embrace every possible perspective. If something just doesn’t seem true to you, it doesn’t seem true to you. But I prefer to embrace polyvalence and avoid binary thinking wherever I can.
The Jain religion of India developed a formal system of polyvalent logic called Syadvada. Syadvada logic has seven truth-values:
1- In some ways it is.
2- In some ways it is not.
3- In some ways it is and is not.
4- In some ways it is and is indescribable.
5- In some ways it is not and is indescribable.
6- In some ways it is and is not and is indescribable.
7- In some ways it is indescribable.
Applying this logic to polytheistic monism we could come up with these results:
1- In some ways reality is One.
2- In some ways reality is Many.
3- In some ways reality is both One and Many.
4- In some ways reality is One but indescribable.
5- In some ways reality is Many but indescribable.
6- In some ways reality is both One and Many yet still indescribable.
7- In some ways reality is just plain indescribable.
Monad and Multiplicity
Imagine a single point like an atom containing everything that is, was or ever could be, and then erase the mental image of a point in space. This is the monad.
Every moment is now and every place is here, and there is no differentiation of before and after or of this and that; there is no differentiation of any kind. It is all things that are or ever will be, all possible universes, all things that are imaginary and even everything impossible. No affirmations can be applied to it, and no negations. Any word you can think of to describe it, it is not that thing. Any word is also inadequate, because it is that thing infinitely. It contains nothing relative within it because there is no within it, has relation to nothing outside it because there is no outside it, and can be changed by nothing. It doesn’t even exist as we understand existence, yet no existence is possible without it.
It is beyond perception, because perception requires contrast. To know it is to not know anything; it is the state of agnosia. The existence of a self requires an other, and thus to observe or be observed at all, reality must divide in the moment of observation into an infinite number of individual selves. When reality observes itself (because there is nothing else that could observe it) it begins to emanate, to split into self and other, affirmation and negation.
As there is nothing at all but reality each self is Reality Itself. From the perspective of being a self, however, the selves don’t know this. If they did, they couldn’t perceive anything, because they could only perceive everything.
This process is infinite and contains all selves in every universe; and the whole process occurs instantly with every moment that we perceive anything. I can see that there is a difference between myself and the rest of the universe; between any specific entity I observe and every other entity; between any of the parts of which an entity is made and all its other parts. Perception mandates particularity and this creates the universe.
It is only through differentiation and opposition that perception is possible, and it is only through the act of perception that relationship is possible, and it is only within the context of relationship that we can speak of existence. Therefore it is the act of observation that creates the universe, which flowers into being an infinite number of times in every moment that passes, as an infinite number of selves observes and creates.
The fire of a nuclear explosion is no comparison, the fire of a sun is no comparison, and nor is a supernova. The becoming is a constant creation in which all entities are co-creators. The becoming is an apocalypse, a fire that creates and consumes and creates again. It is an incomprehensible hunger, a spiritual eros. The becoming is a passion, the intoxication of a maker of worlds. The becoming is all that is, in the process of becoming what it is, as well as all that is not, in the process of becoming what it is not.
One way to speak of this (although like any other possible way to speak of it, it’s only an analogy) is to say that God is the only fact, the unchangeable monad, the Absolute from which all that is relative derives — and God does not exist in the first place. Not, that is, until God perceives God, at which moment being explodes into becoming and the universe flares into life. God can only know God through the existence of God’s own creation, which contains an infinite number of eyes with which God can observe God. God creates the world all over again an infinite number of times in every moment, as each of God’s infinite eyes perceives God.
Whether you choose to call the monad “God” or not is irrelevant in my opinion,but I think it’s appropriate to use that word if you choose to. Now, one of the most common misconceptions about monist forms of mysticism is that the goal is to dissolve the self like a drop of water returning to the ocean from which it came. The great Sufi poet Rumi was familiar with this analogy, and this is what he had to say about it:
Plunge, plunge into the vast ocean of consciousness,
Let the drop of water that is you
Become a hundred mighty seas.
But do not think that the drop alone
Becomes the ocean.
The ocean too becomes the drop.
The self doesn’t disappear or dissolve or become meaningless; it just knows itself as what it always was. The entire universe.
The moment of this knowing is a joy so vast that the world itself seems to shine with euphoria, a love that transcends all passion and leaves desire redundant. It is a sense of perfect freedom, of flying weightlessly, of standing high on a mountain in winter and watching the snow fall on a forest of spruce or of standing on a vast open steppe with your arms raised to a seemingly endless blue sky. It is the understanding that there are no limits, that all the barriers have fallen down, that the only thing left to do is to soar.
It doesn’t last, and in my experience it doesn’t really make you any different than other people except that it convinces you of certain things most people wouldn’t believe without having had such an experience. Is it an experience of oneness or unity? You could call it that, but I really don’t think so. Unity and oneness are both just concepts, and the experience I’m talking about is not really conceptual. You could just as easily describe it as a flow or an explosion or a flowering or a soaring. Calling it an infinite multiplicity would be just as accurate as calling it a monad. People come up with concepts after the fact, but the fact itself remains ineffable.
Now, if we think of all of the infinite selves within this flowering reality to be eyes of God, then each is equally an eye of God. Each, in fact, is equally God. But it is difficult for me to know myself as God or to experience my reality as the whole of the universe. It is easier, for some people, to see this reality in the beloved Other than in the Self. That is the mystical logic of a polytheist monism.
The specific deity I love is not just an aspect of God or a mask of God or another name for God, but all of God. Not just a drop in the great ocean, but the whole ocean in every drop. And so are all of the other deities even though they are separate and individual beings with real identities and real powers, and so are all of the other selves in the entire universe even though they are all equally and fully distinct at the same time. By loving the deity I love with the most passionate devotion of which I am humanly capable, I seek to love the entire universe.
I don’t claim any superiority for this perspective. It is only one perspective, and the fullness of reality includes all perspectives in unlimited freedom. I’d rather not even talk about enlightenment, a concept that implies some sort of superiority for one perspective. I just want to cultivate the ability to love the goddesses I serve, and to soar when I get the chance to soar. That is my polytheistic monism.