Amanda Viana de Sousa
University of Freiburg (Germany)
MEISTER ECKHART AND MĀNIKKA VĀŚAGAR IN THE EYES OF THE RECEPTION: THE TENSION BETWEEN ONENESS AND DUALITY
In this essay Amanda Viana de Sousa traces the relationship between German philosopher Meister Eckhart and Tamil mystic Māṇikka Vāśagar in the work of the Indian theologian Hilko Wiardo Schomerus, an interpretation that in many ways challenges the famous one by Rudolf Otto in his well-known book West-östliche Mystik (in which he equates Meister Eckhart with the emblematic figure of the modern Western reception of India: Ādi Śaṅkaracārya). Schomerus’ work epitomizes the complex texture of transcultural reception and shows (perhaps unwillingly) that in matters of comparative metaphysics the difficulties lie in the rule rather than the exception.
1. Rudolf Otto’s attempt at a bridge between Western and Eastern mysticism
Śaṅkaracārya, the main representative of the philosophical system called Advaita Vedānta, is one of the most widely-known figures of Indian thought. His radically monistic doctrine has had a particular reception in the Western culture. In his book West-Östliche Mystik: Vergleich und Unterscheidung zur Wesensdeutung (1971), German historian of religion Rudolf Otto sees Śaṅkara’s doctrine as a foundational element for bridge-building between East and West. The other element he views is that towering figure of mediaeval Christian mysticism: Meister Eckhart. At first hand, such a comparison is far from self-evident: What does a radical monistic system of thought based on the affirmation of an acosmic and impersonal principle (brahman) have in common with the relational mysticism of Christian religion revolving around the birth of the human soul (in analogy to the birth of the Son) in God? One of the central ideas of Rudolf Otto is grounded in the possibility of comparing Śaṅkara’s designation of the Absolute, brahman, with an instance going beyond the sphere of a personal deity, which Meister Eckhart calls ‘Godhead’ [Gottheit]. Both designations refer to an absolute, eternal and unchanging being devoid of qualities, which in philosophical vocabulary can be translated as the pure One. Precisely because of the emphasis on radical ontological oneness, the affirmation of this Absolute or Godhead implies a negative judgement on the world as the sign of the Many. In other words: the world ultimately belongs to the sphere of māyā (in Śaṅkara) or entia creata (in Meister Eckhart), and the main soteriological operation, which both authors teach, is the unity of the soul with the pure One.
Given this affinity between Śaṅkara and Meister Eckhart, Rudolf Otto points nonetheless to an undeniable difference: while Śaṅkara’s brahman is exclusively static, impersonal and without relation, Meister Eckhart’s conception of God is dynamically inclusive and entails aspects of personality and relation that are very important in Christian tradition. In this sense, Rudolf Otto regards Śaṅkara’s relationship between the One and the Many as rigid and inflexible, whereas in Eckhart’s philosophy the One and the Many are presented in an active, dynamic and lively fashion1. This difference is so ostensible that one is entitled to ask: What is the value of this comparison and what was Rudolf Otto’s (ideological?) motivation for embarking on such a task?
2. Hilko Wiardo Schomerus’ critique and alternative model of comparison
Hilko Wiardo Schomerus, a Christian priest from southern India who lived in Germany, tried to give a plausible answer to the question posed above in his book Meister Eckhart und Mānikka Vāśagar: Mystik auf deutschen und indischem Boden (1936)2: Rudolf Otto’s aim was to show the value of Meister Eckhart as a scholastic author, that is, a master of learning and interpretation (Lesemeister) – which is justifiable if one thinks of the Latin biblical exegesis he produced on, for example Genesis, Exodus, Wisdom and the Gospel of John. Precisely for this reason, states Schomerus3, Rudolf Otto thought it wise to choose the great Indian philosopher Śaṅkara as a complementary pole for his comparison between East and West, the very author who had not only delved into the most abstruse deductive and theoretical reflexions on the Absolute, but had also written famous commentaries on the Upaniṣads, the Brahma-Sūtras and the Bhagavad Gītā. However, Meister Eckhart was not only a master of learning and interpretation. Schomerus emphasizes other aspects of this author: “the preacher, the priest and the mystic”4. These aspects open quite another comparative perspective (no longer intellectualist and scholarly, but rather mystic and spiritual), and within this perspective the Eastern pole needs to be replaced. Schomerus therefore concentrates on a figure of mediaeval Shaiva Mysticism of southern India: Mānikka Vāśagar5.
Mānikka Vāśagar was not a man of speculative nature whose work focused on conceptualexplanations of theological and philosophical problems, but first and foremost a devotee (bhakta) with Dravidian background who composed religious hymns in the Tamil language. For Schomerus, the meaning of a comparison between a Christian mystic like Meister Eckhart and a Shaiva devotee like Mānikka Vāśagar is twofold: on the one hand, one comes – through a perspective going beyond mere intellectualism – closer to an understanding of the essence of mysticism, and on the other one can better expose the divergences between Christian mysticism and authentic or true Christianity6. His essay shows another contrast, not quite explicitly mentioned, though: that of mysticism as a differential path with regard to the dominant, authoritarian and even tyrannical system of mainstream institutions. Furthermore, both Meister Eckhart and Mānikka Vāśagar conceive the union between God and the soul in a way that can be defined neither as ontological monism in the radical sense of fully undifferentiated oneness, nor as a dualism with an unsurpassable split between the transcendent instance and the individual human soul. In view of such interesting claims in Schomerus’ book, one can pose the following question: How can the union between God and the soul be conceived if it escapes the parameters of both monism and dualism? In order to deal with this question, it is necessary to consider the role of the divine in Meister Eckhart and Mānikka Vāśagar.
3. The divine in Meister Eckhart and Mānikka Vāśagar
One of Meister Eckhart’s principal ideas is the difference between the Godhead and God. The first term refers to the simplicity, purity and plenitude of a perfect and non-changing being standing above all instances of existence, life and thought; the second term describes an active and dynamic being effectuating the order of creation, a being that also discloses the inner- trinitarian unity (the unity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost). In Mānikka Vāśagar’s thought there are basically two divine instances: Śivam (neuter in Sanskrit) as a radically transcendent principle or pure and motionless oneness, and Śiva (masculine) as an active and dynamic God. Here there is a certain analogical correspondence with the conception of the Father and the Son in the Christian religion, since the dynamic unity of Śiva and Śakti flows from the hidden and radically transcendent Godhead Śivam into a divine space of manifestation. Śiva and Śakti are essentially ‘one’ but at the same time ‘different’ in terms of a relation of forces. Both for Meister Eckhart and Mānikka Vāśagar, the static transcendent principle devoid of qualities instantiates an internal outflow (the Father- Son dynamics in Christian terms, the dual unity of Śiva and Śakti in Hinduism), remaining nonetheless transcendent to this instantiation. It is important to note that the divine outflow shapes a model of the soul and brings the world into existence – which explains the ambivalent nature of the individual soul: it can incline itself either to the world or to God – and be therefore determined either by the corruption of the imperfect sphere or by the perfection of the divine.
“The inner world of the soul is the place where the divine dwells and acts, i.e. where a transcendent creative energy flow, rules and prevails.”
Portrait of Meister Eckhart by Giovanni Bellini (XV century) Source: nationalgallery.org.uk
Both Meister Eckhart and Mānikka Vāśagar analyze the ambivalence of the soul on the basis of an important distinction between ‘soul’ and ‘ground of the soul’ (Meister Eckhart) or ‘soul in itself’ (Mānikka Vāśagar). The soul carries forces related to the outer world, that is, a kind of knowledge essentially linked with matter, time and plurality7. However, both thinkers are convinced that the soul can also attain a superior form of knowledge related to its inner world, which Meister Eckhart calls ‘ground of the soul’ and Mānikka Vāśagar calls Śakti8. The inner world of the soul is the place where the divine dwells and acts, i.e. where a transcendent creative energy flow, rules and prevails. If the soul gains access to this place, it attains self-realization, it becomes one with the divine, and it is this becoming-one that should be deemed the highest form of knowledge.
It should be clearly understood that, in the context of both conceptions, the empirical (or world-related) knowledge of the soul plays no role when it comes to considering the inner world (or the essence) of the soul. Furthermore, the type of knowledge related to the outer world is a trap for the soul, because it can lead it astray9. As a result of this, Meister Eckhart affirms that the soul leads a miserable, bitter shadow-life10. Mānikka Vāśagar, for his part, adds to the negative limitations of individual mundane existence the question of reincarnation as a result of the law of karma. This question goes beyond individual existence in a single lifetime and considers the problem of māyā as the sphere in which the soul is trapped and confined to its unfortunate existence11.
4. Birth in God (Gottesgeburt) and descent of Śakti (Śaktinipāta): towards an explanation of the experience of the (non-)One
Both Meister Eckhart and Mānikka Vāśagar share a fundamental idea: no act of the soul can lead it to be one with God; all that the soul can do is open itself in all freedom for God to act12. Here one should become aware of a very important exigence: the soul must let its ties with the outer world fall away and reach its ultimate silence, so that the divine may emerge from within. This accomplishment of the divine act in the human soul is what Meister Eckhart calls ‘birth in God’ (Gottesgeburt) and Mānikka Vāśagar defines as ‘descent of Śakti’ (Śaktinipāta).
One the one hand, Meister Eckhart affirms that birth in God takes place without interruption, “whether you like it or not, whether you sleep or are awake”13. The subjective appropriation of this event can only ensue if one is imbued with the divine14, which means when the soul abandons the outer world and severs itself from its influence. Meister Eckhart equates the birth of God in the soul with the instance of becoming a ‘Divine Son’.15 According to Schomerus, Mānikka Vāśagar regards world renunciation as the sign of a necessary process of maturity taking place throughout many incarnations. When the soul becomes mature, it can receive the gracious and atoning power of Śakti. It is this effect of Śakti in the individual soul, or perhaps – better formulated – the occupation of the soul by the divine Śakti, that Mānikka Vāśagar calls Śaktinipāta16. Here one should consider the following aspect: through the birth of God in the soul and the Śaktinipāta, the soul is one with the divine in the modality of emanation17, in which it takes part in the dynamics of the Trinity (Meister Eckhart), or in the dual union of Śiva and Śakti (Mānikka Vāśagar). 18 This means that the soul is one with God or Śiva in their living and acting aspect, but not with the transcendent abyss devoid of qualities: this ultimate union is still a task to be accomplished. Schomerus explains that the union with this aspect of the divine prevents the soul from entangling itself in the sphere of mundanity and renders it free from determinations of plurality and fragmentariness and even detached from the relational dynamics of the divine.19
The union of the soul with the Godhead or with Śivam is part of the inner divine process in which the divine instantiates itself retroactively in its very modality of emanation. In this sense, no effect takes place on this level. The soul rests upon the bosom of the perfect and fully quiescent Being as pure potentiality of manifestation.20 One notes in both authors, Meister Eckhart and Mānikka Vāśagar, a kind of metaphysics of flow.21 Exactly as in the divine sphere, in which a movement of emanation takes place from the static modality of being to the dynamic aspect and at the same time a reverse process of ontological implosion signals a return to the primal condition, the individual soul should not confine itself to the material world, but rather return to the divine sphere in correspondence with the flow of the divine, opening itself to it.
“Through the birth of God in the soul and the Śaktinipāta, the soul is one with the divine in the modality of emanation”
As a result of the birth of God in the soul or the Śaktinipāta, the human being is no longer fettered to the empirical forces of the soul, but submits himself to the divine. However, Meister Eckhart’s and Mānikka Vāśagar’s effort to show the attainable union of the individual soul with the Godhead or Śivam does not suppress their awareness of the impossibility of any complete identification of the soul as such with the abyss of the Godhead. This is the crucial point which distinguishes the two conceptions in question from the radical monism of Śaṅkaracārya, for whom such union is possible owing to the ontologically determined essential identity between the two. Schomerus points to this fact although both authors, Meister Eckhart and Mānikka Vāśagar, recur to a necessary and ultimate unity between the Godhead/Śivam and the soul (creating thus an ambivalence as to possible monistic undertones in their doctrines, especially when they say that at that point no discourse about ‘soul’ or ‘God’ makes sense any longer). In reality, it is an experience of the soul that surpasses language but does not tracelessly merge the individual singularity in an undifferentiated chasm of being22 – especially if the soul lives in the outer world.
“The divine and the human are two, but according to their mode of living, they may appear as one”
5. Non-duality and third perspective
It is therefore clear that neither Meister Eckhart nor Mānikka Vāśagar stands for a radical ontological monistic perspective, but this does not mean that they embrace a dualistic one, as the argument of the birth of God in the soul and the Śaktinipāta demonstrates. Schomerus says in this respect: “one can perhaps describe this question in the most proper way – though only limiting oneself to the formal side – as follows: neither two nor one; two as well as one”.23 He argues that it is a junction of two beings (Wesenheiten), whose manifestation-aspect crystalizes as being in the order of phenomena – albeit having an essential identity with its own non-manifested root, since the dynamic God is fully permeated by the primal transcendent instance of the Godhead. Therefore “one can call the very being entering the phenomenal sphere Godhead as well as Soul, admittedly without denying the specific existence of the one or the other”24.
Bronze representation of Mānikka Vāśagar, Tamil Nadu, XI/XII century. Source: Wikipedia
Neither monism nor dualism, this third perspective announces a way of overcoming the discourses of total union with the divine, as well as ontological separation from it: it is the way of dynamic integration between the divine and the human, a way that takes a critical distance from established reductionisms and is therefore open to everyone. The divine and the human are two, but according to their mode of living, they may appear as one, insofar as the divine and the human disclose themselves towards each other in a profound act of self-donation, which for the human is a cipher of a decisive individual transformation. But, Schomerus adverts, because a human being is not God, he must strive to achieve existential completion and growth. At this point, there is a fundamental difference between Meister Eckhart and Mānikka Vāśagar: the former sees the possibility of strengthening the link between the human soul and God as an ars vivendi, therefore his turning-away from the world does not ultimately lead to an absolute contemptum mundi, but a radical transformation of being- in-the-world (as being permanently born in God)25. The latter, on the contrary, emphasizes the evil character of everything related to the worldly sphere and affirms that he no longer fits with that order of being26. Mānikka Vāśagar’s devotional path is a feverish yearning for the Absolute that configures itself as a relentless dissociation from the relative order of being in which the soul can get enmeshed and forget its own source
- Cf. Rudolf Otto. West-Östliche Mystik. Vergleich und Unterscheidung zur Wesensdeutung. München: C. H. Beck, 1971, p. 101.
- D. Hilko Wiardo Schomerus. Meister Eckhart und Manikka-Vasagar: Mystik auf deutschen und indischem Boden. Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1936.
- Cf. Ibidem, p. VI (preface).
- Cf. Mānikka Vāśagar. “Die Hymnen des Manikka- Vasagar (Tiruvāšaga )”, translated by D. Hilko Wiardo Schomerus. (Religiöse Stimmen der Völker, edited by V. Walter Otto. Texte zur Gottesmystik des Hinduismus). Jena: Eugen Diederichs, 1923; Cf. also Sivaitische Heiligenlegenden (Periyapurāṇa und Tiruvātavūrar-purāṇa), translated by D. Hilko Wiardo Schomerus, Jena: Eugen Diederichs,1925; D. Hilko Wiardo Schomerus. Der Caiva-Siddhanta, eine Mystik Indiens. Nach dem tamulischen Quellen bearbeitet und dargestellt. Leipizig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1912.
- Cf. Schomerus, 1936, p. 4.
- Cf. Tiruvāšaga XLI, 1.3, S. 9. With regard to Meister Eckhart cf. Pr. 11 [EWI 132/133, 25–26]und Pr. 12 [EWI 142/143, 16–17]. Cf. Meister Eckhart. Deutsche Werke I: Predigten 1–65, edited by Niklaus Largier, Frankfurt a. M.: Deutscher Klassiker, 2008 (= Band 24).
- Schomerus, 1936, p. 27.
- Cf. Tiruvāšaga X, 17, p. 79.
- In Ioh. n. 308 [LWIII 256, 13–19]. Cf. Meister Eckhart. ”Expositio sanc. ev. sec. Iohannem”, in: Lateinische Werke III, edited and translated by K. Christ, B. Decker, J. Koch, H. Fischer, A. Zimmermann, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1994.
- Cf. Schomerus, 1936, pp. 49-50.
- Cf. Tiruvāšaga V.VIII, 9, p. 41.
- Cf. Pr. 22 [EWI 262/263, 16–17].
- Cf. Pr. 38 [EWI 418/419, 3].
- Cf. Pr. 4 [EWI 54/55, 20–23].
- Cf. Schomerus, 1936, pp. 27-28. Cf. Tiruvāšaga III, p. 14.
- Cf. Pr. 46 [EWI 490/491, 13–19].
- Cf. Tiruvāšaga XXXIV, 2, p. 152.
- Cf. Schomerus, 1936, p. 165.
- Cf. Ibidem, pp. 166-167.
- Cf. McGinn, 2001, p. 71: “A good way to understand Eckhart’s implied systematic is through the dynamic reciprocity of the ‘flowingforth’ [exitus-emanatio/uzganc-uzfliessen]of all things from the hidden ground of God, and the ‘flowing-back’, or ‘breaking-through’ [reditusrestoratio/ inganc-durchbrechen], of the universe into essential identity with this divine source. From this perspective, Eckhart’s metaphysics is aptly described as a ‚metaphysics of flow‘ [i.e., fluxus]”. Cf. Bernard McGinn, The mystical thought of Meister Eckhart. New York: Herder Books, 2001.
- Cf. Schomerus, 1936, p. 133.
- Cf. Ibidem, p. 168.
- Cf. Ibidem, p. 168.
- Pr. 86 [EWI 210/211, 16]. Cf. Meister Eckhart. Deutsche Werke II: Predigten 66–86, Traktate, Lateinische Werke (Auswahl), edited by Niklaus Largier, Frankfurt a. M.: Deutscher Klassiker 2008 (= Band 25).
- Cf. Schomerus, 1936, p. 135. Cf. also Tiruvāšaga V.VI, 8, S. 33. Cf. also Tiruvāšaga V. VI , 10, p. 33.