Beyond words – Through the Lens of Religious Genius

From the Religious Genius Project

Following, you will find a cluster of texts comprised of contributions from authors of different religious tradition. Each text has a brief commentary by a scholar and one or two questions to assist you in focusing on its particular approach to the theme under discussion.

It is recommended for those not so familiar with text study that each of the texts is read guided by the accompanying question or questions. However, advanced readers may not need the guidance and may prefer to encounter the texts without the mediation of the questions.

After reading the individual texts, consider the following general questions in relation to the theme:

1. In what way do each of the texts reflect a unique cultural/ socio-religious setting and to what extent are they reflective of a universal human quest for meaning?

2. What unique contribution to our understanding of the theme does each text make? Can the unique contributions resonate with followers of another religious tradition?

3. Identify any understandings of the theme that are common to all the selected texts. Do these understandings appear more prominent in one tradition than in another or are they likely to resonate equally across all traditions?

4. How do these texts enhance your appreciation of their authors as ‘religious geniuses’?

Beyond Words: The Power and Powerlessness of Words

Sources 63, 27, 25, 80, 47, 46

Speech is one of the most fundamental components or expressions of the spiritual life. The following selections all reflect awareness of the centrality of speech, but at the same time also problematize the use of speech, suggesting ways in which it is limited or should be transcended or otherwise used. What is the strategy for approaching speech in each of these texts? Do the different strategies reflect the same challenge, or do the challenges and struggles take shape in ways that are particular to each of the traditions?

Each of the texts below deals with questions related to perception of and communication with and about the realm beyond, exploring in some way the possibilities of or limitations of words. Read the texts and the commentaries, if you desire, guided by the questions that accomapny the texts. After reading the texts, refer to the question above, a synthesis of the four questions on the previous page with respect to the theme of ‘Beyond Words’.

Source 63 (Hindu): Nammalvar

Tiruvaymoli 7.9.1 to 3

Guiding questions: What is the source of the poet’s ability to articulate? To what does the word ‘sweet’ apply and why is it used?

What can I say of the lord
who lifted me up for all time,
and made me himself, every day?
My radiant one, the first one,
my lord, speaks of himself,
through me, in sweet Tamil.

What can I say of him
who unites with my sweet life today?
He makes my words, the sweet words I say,
seem as if they were mine,
[but] the wondrous one praises himself
through his own words.
The Primary one of the three [divine] forms
says my words ahead of me.

Entering my tongue first,
he made clear to me that,
yes, he was the primeval one.
Would I ever forget
the father who, through my mouth
spoke about himself
to the foremost, pure devotees
in fine sweet verse?

Commentary by Vasudha Narayanan: In this entire set of verses, and in some later ones (TVM 10.7.2), Nammalvar claims that Vishnu spoke through him.  There is no reference to the suffering and longing expressed in other sets of poems; here, and now, the lord has united with him and speaks through him.  The commentators understand this to mean that Vishnu has spoken the entire Tiruvaymoli through Nammalvar, not just the verses where the poet speaks through the ecstatic words of union.

Source 27 (Jewish):

R. Dov Baer of Medzirech, Chief disciple of the Baal Shem Tov

Guiding questions: What is the power of speech described in this source; what power finds expression through the spoken words? Does this refer to all speech or only particular words?

He should put all his thought in the power of the words that he speaks, so that he shall see how the lights [which are] within the words are sparking within one another, and out of them some [other] lights are generated… the letters/sounds of the Torah, are chambers of the God [or Name], blessed be He, that He draws within them the emanation of His light [as it is written in the Zohar, “The Holy One, blessed be He and the Torah are all one” and within them should the person put all his intention, which is the soul, since the intention is the soul, and this is the devequt [attachment] between “the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Torah and Israel, which are all are one” and this is the divestment of materiality, namely he should divest his soul from his body, and his soul will [then] be clothed by those thoughts that he speaks, and will see how many supernal worlds are [found] in man.

R. Dov Baer of Medzirech, Maggid Devarav le-Ya‘aqov, ed. Schatz-Uffenheimer, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem,1990), pp. 47-48.

Commentary by Moshe Idel: Ritual vocal performance is not just a matter of creating a locus for the encounter with the divine light but also of the place where extraordinary attainments become possible, like telling the future and also to envision the divine powers and heal. The omnipotence of the vocal ritual is articulated here in terms of the possibility to unify the three most important entities in Judaism: God, Torah and the people of Israel. This is predicated on a strong investment in the speech-act, which allows a certain type of vision of the divine sparks imagined to dwell within the sounds.

Source 25 (Jewish): Baal Shem Tov

R. Moshe Shoham of Dolina, Divrei Moshe, part I, fol. 12cd

Guiding question: The term ‘devequt’ refers to a special attachment of a righteous person to the Divine. Words (of prayer) play an important part in achieving this attachment, so a scholar may be reluctant to use ‘everyday’ words. How does the Baal Shem Tov respond to the need to use everyday language?

“I heard from the Rabbi, the Holy Lamp the Besht, blessed be his memory, that this is the intention of the Sages, who asserted [BT, ‘Avodah Zarah, fol. 19b ] that ‘the ordinary conversation of the learned scholars needs a [special] study’, it means that it is necessary to learn how to speak ordinary conversations, and he will not, God forbid, suspend the devequt. And behold there are two benefits: one that he does not suspend the devequt…and even more so that by its means [of the devequt] holiness is drawn onto the thing that he is doing, namely if he buys something or when he speaks about buying something in such a manner, as mentioned above, then he draws the holiness to that object. Thus afterwards when he uses the object that he bought, it will be easy to use it while being in the state of devequt.”

Commentary by Moshe Idel: Here the ritual speech is described as capable not only to draw the divine light within the vocal acts, but also to sanctify objects found in the presence of the person. Here holiness is produce by the speech-act and induced into the immediate surroundings of the person. By creating the holiness and channeling it, the next act of adhering to the divine is conceived of as being easier.

Source 80 (Christian): Thomas Merton

Letter to Amiya Chakravarty, April 13, 1967

Guiding questions: What does Thomas Merton suggest might be more powerful means of communication than speech?

It is not easy to try to say what I know I cannot say. I do really I have the feeling that you have all understood and shared quite perfectly. That you have seen something that I see to be most precious – and most available too. The reality that is present to us and in us: call it Being, call it Atman, call it Pneuma … or Silence. And the simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen which cannot be learned any more than breathing), we can find ourself engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanations.

Source 47 (Muslim): Rumi

On music, and expanded awareness of reality.

Guiding questions: How does the music of the lute affect Rumi? Why does it not affect everyone the same way?

One day he [Rumi] said, “The sound of the lute is the squeaking of the door of heaven, which we now can hear.” A skeptic said, “We hear the same sound. How is it that we do not become as excited as the Master?” The Master said, “God forbid! What we hear is the sound of the door opening, and what he hears is the sound of the door closing.” (Source: Jami, Nafahat al-uns, in C. Ernst, Teachings of Sufism).

Commentary by Carl W. Ernst:

Music and the recitation of poetry were profoundly important to the spiritual practice of Rumi and circle, and to judge from his biographies, this practice was frequently a source of ecstasy to many of the participants. Yet not everyone has the same capacity to perceive the spiritual realm through listening to music. Differences of temperament and capacity mean that the same recital can engender different responses; the Sufi aesthetic presumes that, for sensitive souls, even ordinary events can become the stimulus for a heightened insight into the nature of reality. This brief anecdote brings out Rumi’s ability to convey this point with ingenuity and humor.

Source 46 (Muslim): Rumi

The well-known “song of the reed,” the opening verses of the Masnavi.

Guiding questions: Rumi uses the poetic form to describe his spiritual experience – ironically, making skilful use of words. What does he say the reed flute can articulate better than words can? What is meant by the contrast of fire and wind?

Listen to the way this reed flute grieves, telling stories of its separations:

“Ever since I was torn from the reed bed, men and women lament from my cry.

“I want a heart that’s torn from separation, so I can explain the pain of longing.

“Whoever remains far from his source one day seeks again the time of union.

“I was mourning during every gathering, joined with both the wretched and the lucky.

“Everyone liked me from his own opinion, but none sought out my secrets from within me.

“My secret is not far from my lament, but mere eyes and ears are not illumined.”

Body is not hid from soul, nor soul from body; but none has the power to see the soul.

The reed’s lament is fire — it’s not the wind! Whoever lacks this fire, may he be nothing!

It’s the fire of love that fell into the reed, and it’s the boiling of love that fell into the wine. (Source: Masnavi-i ma`navi 1 :1-10, ed. M. Isti`lami, trans. C. Ernst)

Commentary by Carl W. Ernst: These verses display a startling innovation in the form of the Persian mystical epic. In previous treatments by masters such as Sana’i and `Attar, this genre adhered to the formal conventions of beginning with praise of God and the Prophet Muhammad. In contrast, Rumi begins with a powerful invocation of the image of the reed flute as symbol of the human soul cut off from its divine source, and its haunting melody expresses the divine longing that only the experienced can understand (Rumi also broke the rules in lyrical poems, where he never used a signature line to end his verses as most poets did). The intensity of Rumi’s expression of love and longing is enhanced by the realization that few are capable of grasping it. Nevertheless, the surprising focus on the agony of the human soul, in place of formally Islamic theological doctrines, is extraordinarily effective in making this experience available to the reader.