Glowing Embers: Enriching Comparisons

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peter emberly

I write this piece in memory of my Ph.D. Supervisor and dear mentor, Professor Peter Emberley whose illness and sudden demise has saddened many of us.  Peter Emberley’s contribution to liberal education, especially as a founder of the College of Humanities (where I taught until 2001) has been and will continue to be in the limelight in Canada. His recurring warnings about nihilistic education and the great responsibility of educators to nourish the longing for justice and wholeness are relevant for all contexts in this globalized world. Prudent as he was, he knew that educators may not always know or succeed in this project of shaping the desire for freedom, recognition and wholeness; in fact, they may distort them such that freedom becomes mere instinctual gratification or the desire for recognition and wholeness becomes mere libido dominandi.

Here, I wish to meditate on how, as someone steeped in the western canon, he managed to push some of us who were not as familiar with the same towards meaningful comparative work.  Then, as now, the climate of opinion was forbidding for comparative political theory: since many of us had studied only western political classics even in India, the likelihood of Eurocentrism was exceptionally high. After all, our concepts, themes and yardsticks would be drawn from the west and this would occlude their particularity and hegemonic nature.  And then there was the fear of orientalism, that we might just find something unique and worth celebration if we were to focus on non-western material.  Perfectly respectable and solid scholars like Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy were being exposed as ‘apologists’ since they were espousing philosophia perennis. The doctrine of historicity meant that comparisons across time and space are ‘essentialistic’ and best avoided.

It did not help that formidable modern philosophers such as G W F Hegel had slammed Hindu concepts as confused and heteronomous. Notions of freedom and equality were not to be found in the Indian context. Was it not only about caste oppression? Were women not pushed into arranged marriages?  Was it not about fate (karma) rather than free will? Was there any philosophical thinking at all?  Was it not all mythic and pre-philosophical? Did Hindus not revere the self in deep sleep (as Heidegger mused) alongside trees and cows?

It seemed safe to just write another review of literature on some French philosopher (I was into Paul Ricouer and Jean Francois Lyotard). As I submitted short papers on select western philosophers such as Plato or Heidegger, Peter would add sharp comment s on the margins: Did Heidegger’s ‘thrownness’ presuppose the universe as chaos or cosmos?  Enamoured as I was of the critique of the autonomous subject by the linguistically constituted discursive ‘inter-subjects’ and their shape shifting subject-positions, I was asked to see how that compared with Socrates’ questioning psyche and Augustine’s loving self. If I waxed about how everything is historically situated, I was asked ‘do you know the difference between time as history and time as the moving image of eternity?’ If I harped on emancipatory interests, I was asked whether I grasped the dangers of immanentisation of the eschaton? If I glorified the rational self determination of the will, he directed me to the sources and full implications of the modern will to mastery or death of God.  If I exulted over identity politics destabilising patriarchy, I was asked whether I knew the difference between mere plurality and genuine heterogeneity of being?

There was no rancour, only a firm steering of the mind from mere posturing to meditating on fundamental issues. Thus reading meant peering into thought crystals–self, justice, existence, love, revolution, utopia and so on—until one saw how they circulated and morphed in canonical texts, revealing similarities and concealing differences or even incommensurabilities.  If only one asked questions of contemporaries using the classics and departed from trendy historicist sophistry, he showed that thinking could be absorbing and rewarding all the time. It was neither easy nor pleasant but the glowing embers he kindled continued to smoulder and crackle whenever I thought or wrote.

Supreme Danger

Many of these insights may be familiar to those who know the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns especially as expounded by Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. But what Peter Emberley managed to do, thanks to his interest in George Grant and Eric Voegelin, was to enlist the symbolic orders articulated elsewhere for thinking through the tension of existence afresh. Having read and taught Eric Voegelin’s “Reason: The Classic Experience” over decades, he had overcome the anxiety to compress the world into doctrines and reasoned with complete openness.

Voegelin’s warning about the ‘immanentisation of the eschaton’ being the supreme danger of our time was so fully imbibed by Peter that there would not be too many lectures where the phrase did not occur. Primarily, this phrase referred to the Enlightenment penchant for infinite progress and to that end, relentless improvement of humans and society. Eschaton as a symbol of perfection is sought to be realized in history through human engineering rather than divine grace.

Like Heidegger, Voegelin too argued that the primacy of scientific and technological rationality led to the reduction of nature and society to mere stuff to be manipulated. He recognized that ecclesiastic Christianity was partly responsible for the rebellion against god and church. Metaphysical and doctrinal drives had obscured the experiential basis of many religious symbols. Moreover, the transcendental Biblical God, displacing intra cosmic gods ran the risk of becoming remote and distant.

Unlike Heidegger who valorised human temporality, Voegelin engaged deeply with mythic and religious symbols that articulate the human experience of transcendence. He perceived the complementarity of the truth content of myth and philosophy; if one tries to set aside the intra cosmic gods for obstructing the highest God or ground, one runs the risk of reducing the world to a ‘waste land’. When spiritual outbursts push in the direction of concentrating the deity in a “Beyond’, the world as enchanted by the gods ‘in here and now’ suffers damage. Paradoxically this may even  distance the transcendent god so far away from humans, eventually making way for deism and atheism.[1]  A ‘supreme danger’ was that it could mean loss of reason since there was a loss of ground to which human existence could be related.

Voegelin was therefore keen to redeem pre-modern ways of reasoning from doctrinal and dogmatic distortions. Through meditative re-enactment, he attempted an experiential reconstruction of mythic and religious symbols.  Voegelin’s emphasis on spiritual experiences and his admiration for the via negativa adumbrated in the Upanishads enabled Peter Emberey to venture beyond familiar horizons of significance.

Emberley’s boundless curiosity and respect for what he had seen in India precluded any desire to rank different revelations based on his own pride and prejudice. Instead what he sought was how others, in this case Hindus, reasoned about being in-between life and death and about the relevant symbolic articulations; how did they order their everyday lives in tune with this awareness? In response, I regaled him with our ‘superstitions’—I cannot cut nails or hair on Tuesdays or Fridays or new moon days or full moon days or any evening, I cannot sit on the threshold of the house, I must bathe after seeing a dead body and so on. “But of course, these are all liminal moments.. . have you not read Victor Turner? Or Mircea Eliade on the sacramental nature of everyday life?”  Nowhere was his openness more evident than in the keen interest in Hindu myths which he saw as more primordial and symbolic than the discursive mode in articulating the sacred. For this reason (and also given his rudimentary knowledge of Sanskrit and Hindi), he did not evince much interest in the more sophisticated theological notions of say karma yoga (the path of action) or atman-brahman (the Upanishadic symbol of the inner self-cosmic principle/witness). This may have stemmed from being wary of doctrinal and apologetic biases in this material.

Far from being mere romanticism, it was his hunch that since the Bauls, Bahurupis and others were on the periphery of globalization, their material practices would tell us more about the struggles to preserve an alternative way of being in the world. Their lived experience of a cosmic order in which we are situated might give us clues about re-appropriating such possibilities in our life-worlds. Their improvisations on mythic exemplars in their craft (techne) as well as the way they attached their archaic wisdom to new practices fascinated him. Clearly, Voegelin’s keen analysis of myth as a style of reasoning informed his pursuits.

Persistence of Myths

While Voegelin laid out philosophy and Revelation as more differentiated in terms of articulating the psyche as the ‘site and sensorium of the ground’, he was equally aware that mythic ways of reasoning could not be simply overcome or replaced. He was clear that myth was not opposed to reason but embodied a different style of reasoning about all important questions such as origins of cosmos, of gods and humans. Construing reason as rooted in an experience of anxiety about ‘existence out of nothing’, he pointed to the cosmogonic myths that narrate and enact the passing of time from pristine origins through growth to decay. Alluding to Eliade’s account of New Year rituals that attempt to abolish time and restore the cosmos to the ‘dawn’, he wrote:

The people living in the myth sensed the cosmos threatened by destruction through time; and the ritual repetitions of cosmogony purported to “annul the irreversibility of time”. The sense of a cosmos existing in precarious balance on the edge of emergence from nothing and return to nothing must be acknowledged therefore as lying at the centre of the primary experience . [2]

This primary experience of existence out of nothing gets illuminated in reasoning about ‘beginnings’ and the presence of gods in the cosmos. Voegelin calls this the cosmological style of truth which relates order below to order above (in ideas of kingdom as mirroring the cosmos). This experience gets further differentiated in Revelation where there is another articulation of the world transcendent God as the ground of all things.[3] In his words, “revelation is a spiritual and intellectual revolution inasmuch as the ground beyond no-ground is found at last”.[4] This does not replace the earlier style of cosmological truth but causes hybrid symbolisms as in the Psalms because the uncertainty of the ground remains.[5]

Aware of this persistence, Voegelin observed that “seeking, finding, and giving the ground of things is reasoning and the act of relating things to the ground is reasoning, whatever symbolic form it may assume” referring to the mythopoetic speculation in the Upanishads and elsewhere.[6]  Voegelin also distinguished between two types of mythic styles of reasoning, one where things are related in their origins to intracosmic gods (genealogies, of families, origins of useful things, of wars etc) and another where the genesis of manifold things is related to an absolute ground.[7]  Proceeding to the Brihadaaranyaka Upanisad[8], he admired the ascent from intra-cosmic things (water, air, sky and so on) to the highest symbolised as Brahman as that on which everything here is woven, like warp and woof.[9]  The ‘competitive questionings’ of the Upanishads, he maintained, move the ‘unrest of the quest to the core’.  Upanishads also contain metaphysical discussions about whether an all powerful deity has a form or is formless, whether it acts out of freedom or is subject to karma or whether it is an efficient cause or material cause or final cause and as such immanent or transcendent or both; but these doctrinal aspects did not intrigue Voegelin as much as the mythic accents.

It is in the Apocalypse of Abraham that Voegelin found the experience of transcendence evolve from the cosmological level to the confrontation with a creator God.[10]  Here the divine ‘beyond’ is revealed as moving the heart within man rather than just being outside ‘in’ the cosmos. In Voegelin’s history of spirit, there is further deepening and differentiation as psyche and nous in Plato and Aristotle to connote the site and search for the ground.  This results in an alternative mapping of the terrain in terms of wonder (thaumazein), wisdom (Sophia), causes (aitia) and first cause (arche) and so on.

What is interesting is that though this trajectory is reminiscent of Hegel, Voegelin did not espouse any dialectical overcoming of previous modes of search or articulation by successive ones; for him, myth, philosophy, revelation, apocalypse, or Gnostic speculation, ancient or modern are all expressive of the tension of being in-between and thus have a truth component.  As modes of reasoning, they originate in wonder, express a non cognitive awareness of being related to the ‘beyond’, enable us to participate in the ‘ground’ and order existence in tune with the insights in the realm of personal virtues and institutions.

Voegelin referred to the luminous insights pertaining to life and death, order and disorder, ignorance and wisdom, alienation and salvation through experiences of the ‘in-between’. The paradoxical formulations of dying to this life to gain life eternal or overcoming a sense of alienation in this world by recognizing that one is not totally of this world are ubiquitous in these sources. The double meanings and reversals entailed, such as recognizing that ignorance is fundamental to our existence to an extent and that we will always be under a ‘cloud of unknowing’ are also well attested.

Notwithstanding his own philosophical analysis of this structure of consciousness, Voegelin admits that no society accepts philosophy as its style of truth; myth, ritual, meditation, prayer and faith may all be more effective in persuading people to order existence in consonance with the human condition. One reason is that myth has developed into a sophisticated instrument for expressing the nuances of the soul that cannot be effectively and easily replaced.[11] The truth of myth lay in that it described in symbolic language a ‘real situation’ of metaxy. Neither Plato or Aristotle nor the Church attempted to displace myths for they were aware of the primary experience of a cosmos full of gods.

Enacting the tension between chaos and cosmos and a sense of the precariousness of existence is at the root of cosmogonic rituals. While drawing upon Mircea Eliade’s analysis of cosmogonic myth and ritual, Voegelin foregrounded why political philosophy must attend to myths in thinking about justice or order.  It is not that one must replicate cosmic hierarchy in society or enthrone priests or espouse a civil religion. It implies openness to the transcendent ground of being and thus sustaining conditions that would allow such pursuits both individually and collectively. This would moderate the drive to desacralise everday life towards an endless pursuit of comfort after comfort. It may inspire a rediscovery of wisdom as one of the final ends of human life.

From this standpoint, Professor Emberley’s curiosity regarding the Kalebelias, Bauls, Bahurupis and Bishnois is well placed. The Baul music is bewitching precisely for its mystical appeal in expressing the longings of the soul; the Kalebelias are snake charmers whose music and dance has also entranced many; the bahurupis, true to their name, take on many forms and play-act mythic gods and goddesses; they don disguises and catch us unawares in local trains and buses and streets.[12] Despite grinding poverty, a few struggle to hold on to art forms and others try to ‘preserve by reforming’ their techne in tune with new demands. Like many others, Emberley was struck by the intimacy of some members of these groups with their founding myths and their re-enactment in craft practices and rituals.

More than anxiety about order and disorder or life and death, these groups articulate and play with a category that is uniquely Hindu, the auspiciousness of existence and life forces. While the axis of purity and impurity has rent the society asunder(embodied in the notorious caste system), the auspicious/inauspicious distinction has served to mitigate the harshness of the hierarchy somewhat by stressing dependence. T N Madan clarifies that auspiciousness refers to events and to life as an event-structure whereas purity is an attribute of things.[13] As John Carman points out, auspiciousness suggests more than simply good luck, yet neither Christian orthodoxy nor post-Enlightenment rationalism has a meaningful category for this significant religious survival in folk and popular cultures.[14]  Auspiciousness and inauspiciousness speak of a sort of non-hierarchical power, not a power over others but the power of life. [15] More importantly, this dichotomy is shared by all groups with no one group having a monopoly on auspiciousness or being burdened with the inauspicious. In fact, kings, married women, prostitutes, barbers, washermen become reservoirs of auspiciousness at critical moments even though they are all inferior to the Brahmin male in the hierarchical caste order.

While there are multifarious expressions of the auspicious, the category encompasses a ‘richness of being that enlivens health, wealth, beauty, prosperity, longevity, happiness, harmony, well being, balance, glory, majesty, splendour and luxurious bounty”.[16] Besides creation and destruction, the sustenance of the world and its plenitude are the foci of auspicious rites and symbols. Whether it is the red dot on a woman’s forehead or the auspicious diagrams on the threshold or lighting incense and lamps, a pot full of water decorated with a coconut, neem and mango leaves in the domestic altar, auspiciousness is acted out in inclusive and dynamic terms. It is not just that ‘something exists rather than nothing’ but that ‘something’ which exists is so overflowing and beautiful as to warrant praise and thanks.

Nature is the preeminent site where auspiciousness is revealed and sustained; moreover, it requires continuous effort from humans and this is most elaborately enacted by the Bishnois who are aptly celebrated as ecowarriors par excellence.[17] This community is well known for nurturing compassion toward animals and trees, abjuring violent and destructive uses of the same. A relatively recent cult, by Indian standards, tracing its origins to a fifteenth century saint, Jambheshwar, its practices include protecting sacred groves, feeding and sheltering wild animals such as the black back and spotted deer(including suckling orphaned black bucks by nursing mothers), leaving water for birds and sparing grain and crops for animals and fighting against poaching.[18] What makes all this noteworthy is that these are desert dwellers rather than settled farmers who may have been expected to put self-preservation above all else.

While some of these practices seem quaint or extreme, they capture an idea that is intrinsic to auspiciousness which is the ubiquitous presence of the divine. Here immanence is thought of in a fluid manner that bypasses the theological conundrums of pantheism or animism. Instead of worrying about whether the immanent deity is subject to change or decay or is mere stone or tree, the human wonder at and ability to seduce the flighty and fickle goddesses is played out in rituals of auspiciousness. Another aspect of this is that inauspiciousness is also recognized and seduced to stay away; consider the offering of chilli and lime at the doorsteps to ward off Alakshmi (misfortune), the sister of Lakshmi the goddess of prosperity. Thus the colourful and festive rituals of auspiciousness have survived and flourished over Vedic sacrifices that require priestly expertise or scriptural knowledge. I surmise that it is the inclusive and simple ways of auspiciousness through which people acted out the experience of living between order and disorder, ephemeral and eternal that drew Emberley both to the Kumbh melas and to remote craft communities. Whether this category can deepen our understanding of the tonality and structure of Voegelin’s metaxy must be the subject of another essay.



[1] Eric Voegelin, “Anxiety and Reason” in The Collected Works of Voegelin, Vol 28, Ed., Thomas A Hollweck and Paul Caringella, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press: 1990) p. 78

[2] Ibid., p. 64

[3] Voegelin, ibid., p.67

[4] Ibid., 67

[5] Ibid., 69

[6] Voegelin, Anxiety and Reason, p.74

[7] Ibid., p.75.

[8] The Upanishads form the concluding part of Vedas (and hence are also called Vedanta literally meaning ‘end’ of the Veda) , and consist of speculative and meditational formulations on inner self, divine ground and so on

[9] Ibid., p.96

[10] Ibid., 96

[11] Ibid., 80, 92, 105

[12] “Masters of Disguise” retrieved on 11 Feb 2017.

[13] John B Carman and Frederique Marglin, Purity and Auspiciousness in Indian Society (Brill: Social Science, 1985), p.111

[14] Ibid., p. 110

[15] Marglin, F, Rhythms of Life: Enacting the World with the Goddesses of Orissa, (Delhi: OUP 2008), p.61

[16] Constantina Rhodes, Invoking Lakshmi: The Goddess of Wealth in Song and Ceremony, (Albany: SUNY 2010), p. 94.

[17] Franck Vogel, “The Bishnois: Ecologists since the 15th century” at, accessed 20 March 2017


Vasanthi Srinivasan

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Vasanthi Srinivasan is a professor in the department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. She is also presently Head of the department. She is the author of Gandhi’s Conscience Keeper: C Rajagopalachari and Indian Politics (Permanent Black 2009) and Hindu Spirituality and Virtue Politics (Sage 2014).