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Indra’s Net is a metaphorical image that represents the Buddhist tenets of containment and interpenetration in all phenomena, a containment that encapsulates even the most opposite dichotomies such as truth and falsehood and good and evil. Each seemingly independent entity, each pertaining to a jewel within the infinite expanses of the net, is both refracted by the meanings of all its other surrounding jewels and meaningless. Understanding Indra’s Net requires an enlightened understanding of emptiness and interrelatedness in this world.
This metaphor has carried across several cultures and beliefs, but I came across the image in the context of medieval devotional poetry in India. Above all other languages, Sanskrit has countless synonyms. Moreover, these synonyms do not pertain to certain associations as they do in English, nor are they bound to particular social or emotional situations. Rather, they expand and contract in atmospheric contexts and learnedness.
For me, this freedom from association or connotation closes the divide between poetic words and matter of fact words. By utilizing this closeness between poetic and mundane words, I am closing the gap between the routine and the divine, between the tactile and the spiritual. During these negotiations, the idea of paradox surfaces just as it does in Indra’s net because each word is not just its own entity but is influenced by a slew of other meanings and contexts of its surrounding jewels.
When the divine and the ordinary are brought into close proximity, the lines between conventional truth and absolute truth cross and bend just like the lines between faith and lust, between a solitary and collective, and between the divine and the lowly. This kind of variety in implication of scale is granted by the sudden familiarity of the divine and the estrangement of the materialistic.
Just as certain words can imply a slew of meanings in Sanskrit, names and peoples are similarly pliable. The devotional poets of medieval India were not interested in Western poetry and its attachment to the specificity of the individual; there are no names assigned to lovers, good citizens, or family. Poets, much like religious devotees, stripped away personality and authorship in order to most fully experience the gods and their various manifestations. This is an approach for which impersonality is a prerequisite and suggestion is the chief instrument.
There is, in a sense, less movement between nature, humanity, and the gods because these meanings are all at least possibly being used at the mention of a single word. I am exploring the sensation of what it is like to entertain as many of these meanings as possible in capturing the expansiveness of Indra’s net and all of its interrelated parts. One could imagine this process as bringing each jewel to closer to and farther from its neighboring influences to either expound on or alleviate the overwhelming cross-sections between the divine and the mortal. Writing the work becomes a ritualistic experience in and of itself by loosely defining the limits of the net while using permutations of characters and scenes that each time take on a different manifestation much like the gods themselves.
Without having to reconcile the individual and its subjectivities of vision, Sanskrit is gifted not only with multiple possibilities of meaning but of perspective as well. Much like the jewels scattered about Indra’s net, the voices of these speakers see things more clearly from multiple perspectives and an inclusive narrative voice. A male poet could, for example, inhabit a female voice, allowing him to experience a particular deity in ways never imagined such as husband or father if only in a vicarious way. One seeminly stable voice is dependent on the voices that surround it; their own desires, fears, and allegiances inform the timbre and confidence of that one perspective. It is less about identifying or examining the exact nature of these influences and more about accommodating their complexity and dependency on one another.
Besides inhabiting a collection of voices with which to experience gods in different relationships, imagery offers a mode for poets to experience gods in their various manifestations. For especially in Hinduism, seeing is believing, vested by a detailed history of iconography and rich visual culture representing the many gods and their even more manifold physical manifestations.
There is a Sankrit word, alamkara, which refers to the poetic technique of image-building using shades of similarity being imposed on one another in overtone or suggestion. This strategy similarly mimics Indra’s Net, as this tone never quite commits to one particular meaning but hovers in a wash of visuals as alluring and evasive as the jewels themselves. Interestingly, alamkara can also refer to a literary work on poetry whose date and authorship are unknown, which reflects the intensity of imagery owing in part to a sacrifice of individuality in perspective.
The texts are built up with image and suggestion so that the writer and the subject are blended and perspective is lost; perspective, much like one single jewel in Indra’s Net, pales in comparison to relationships and metaphors that are unbound from the material or symbolic manifestation in a kinesthetic effect. They are all empty and codependent, searching for purpose in an unfixed realm of devotion that is determined by lust and by faith.
The proximity of gods to the everyday life and its imagery is what allows these devotional poets to inhabit the voices, desires, and most secret faiths of others in a grand narrative of fluctuating closeness and longing all amidst the company of devotion.
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Harden, Evan M., "In The Company of Devotion" (2014). Senior Projects Spring 2014. 70.
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