An External Manifestation of an Inner Truth

posted by Satyam Kaswala

My earliest memories of art are of my older brother anxiously showing me otherworldly paintings of the incarnations and pastimes of God, nestled between the pages of the ancient Hindu scripture the Srimad Bhagavatam.  The entire universe was contained in those pictures. Quite literally; there were transcendentally colorful depictions of the material manifestation including the cosmos, the various levels of heavenly and hellish planetary systems and human bodies shown to be microcosms of the universe. They showed me with such unfettered beauty what God, named Krishna, was like (as an enchanting and playfully mischievous boy, as a wistful lover torn by separation, as a fierce protector of devotees), what his family and friends were like and what the spiritual world was like. They also depicted the life cycle of the soul, giving me visual representations of life and death before I understood what either meant. Each color and each symbol told worlds of philosophy.

To this day, I make sure that some of them are the last images I see before I go to sleep so that my consciousness can flirt with their divine ideas throughout the night, or that if I don’t wake up I would still be safe. They felt so familiar and so true that I believed I knew and experienced them long before I was born. They were projections from eternal episodes within my soul, incandescent reminders of vital things and beings I had for too long forgotten.

Visiting the ancient temples of Ankor Wat, Ankor Thom and Banteay Srei was like seeing those paintings for the first time. As I ambled towards the sprawling, mystical Ankor Wat temple, I experienced that rare thrill that often does not even come in one lifetime- an external manifestation of an inner truth I previously thought could not be expressed. But there it was. It was like reaching a higher planet I had been to before, so familiar and so true.

All my life I had dreamed of the ancient Vedic civilization, during which time the Vedas (the oldest known scriptures) were composed. According to the Vedas, we currently live in the age of Kali Yuga, the age of quarrel, hypocrisy and greed. Time is not linear; it is cyclical, and there are four stages the material world cycles through. In each progressive age, the world disintegrates slowly, sacred rivers recede, men become more sinful and atheistic, God more seemingly unreachable. Kali Yuga is the last age in the cycle. In earlier ages, it is said, divine beings and humans regularly interacted, even physically, and knew each other. Most of the carvings dealt with this interaction. All of these stories and philosophies chiseled on nearly every inch of the temples’ walls convinced me more and more that the barrier between the spiritual and the temporal world was indeed a frail one.

As I saw the artful intricacy of the carvings, the symbolism in every image (the temple itself represents Mount Meru, a mystical mountain considered the pivot of the universe), the architecture, the purpose of the various buildings, and the dedication to the divine, I could think of word only: devotion. The sheer amount of unbridled devotion people had to erect these cosmic temples seemed so foreign living in the modern world. Now it seems the construction of a structure with even a modicum of Ankor Thom’s or Ankor Wat’s complexity would be fueled by capitalistic showboating or material functionality, not to a yearning for higher truth. I could not help but think that since that millennium the temples were constructed, as civilization has progressed, it has gotten farther away from its purpose. The fact that the temples were crumbling seemed to say more about our current world than their ancient world.

The personalities and stories etched into the temples’ stone walls were also some of the same ones I grew up on. Not one of them seemed far-fetched to me, not one of them the products of imagination alone. In fact, I felt like the one who was in darkness and ignorance. Those that sculpted these elaborate spiritual episodes of creation or destruction were the ones with knowledge and with something vital the present world lacked. For God has an infinite amount of forms according to the scriptures that provided source material for the temple art. What to speak of fiercely protective half-lion half-man incarnations such as I saw Lord Narasimha carved into Banteay Srei, or a blue-skinned, lotus-eyed youth draped with a peacock feather on his head and a nine-holed flute (for the body, an instrument, too has nine holes) eternally hanging from his mouth, as is Krishna?

I clambered through a corridor in Ankor Tom with my tour-guide, Brehm Sopheap, a delightfully giggly and intelligent man who has quite possibly the roundest face in the world. Sopheap stopped and pointed at a particularly spacious carving etched on the high end of the inside wall. It was an engraved stone carving of the much-celebrated pastime of Krishna lifting the peacock-shaped Govardhan hill.

The streamlined story goes that Indra, the King of Heaven and frequent controller of storms and thunder, unleashed a devastating rain in an attempt to flood the sacred city of Vrindavana. He felt neglected in worship, and thought that the young boy Krishna was the cause of the inhabitations’ lack of devotion unto him. Sensing the shivering fear of Vrindavana’s inhabitants, Krishna lifted the hill for seven days and used it as an umbrella in order to shelter his devotees, the people, the animals and the city. A baffled Indra embarrassingly retreated and recognized the young Krishna as God.

“Do you know this story?” Sopheap asked, pointing at the image.
“Yes, Krishna lifting Govardana Hill,” I replied.

“Yes but you see here Krishna is holding up the hill with his palm,” Sopheap explained. “In the original story he uses only his left pinky.”

“Why the difference?”

“Some stories change. The locals here adapt them for their own purposes, and they change.” Sopheap said.

It was rather stunning. What worlds of cultural identity and history- from India to Cambodia- were contained in those four fingers? The temples were built with such incredible precision and with such attention to detail that the difference must have been deliberate. I thought of all of the evidence of transitions we witnessed in each temple, such as from Hinduism to Buddhism, from Kmher king to Khmer king and from devotional sites to tourist destinations. Yet none could explain a transition so detailed and so knowing.

The characters were the same, the natural objects were the same and the symbols were the same. Yet the meaning to the Khmer was different. No matter how often tourists visit a place such as Cambodia, seeing its grand creations like the temples, there will always be some unspoken but understood truth among its people that we will never know. The difference may never be explained. But at least the image is still there, waiting for the world to see it.


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