For Nicho

This is a temporary page I’m making to share this with you because it’s too long to share on FB.

When I had the opportunity to visit the Elephanta Caves I took it, because it was very meaningful to me to visit those caves. In the interview series The Power of Myth professor Joseph Campbell spoke about them. I can’t find any clips on Youtube for this specific part, so I’m pasting here a few sections where he talks about them. I’m including some other stuff before and after he mentions them for context, which I think include some very powerful and important thoughts. It is not an exaggeration to say these passages may be the most important things I’ve ever heard, and may be the most influential things that have helped me see – and participate in – the world in a healthy way.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: God is a thought, God is a name, God is an idea, but its reference is to something that transcends all thinking. The ultimate mystery of being is beyond all categories of thought. My friend Heinrich Zimmer of years ago used to say, “The best things can’t be told.” Because they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood, because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about, you know. And one gets stuck with the thoughts. The third best are what we talk about, you see. And myth is that field of reference, metaphors referring to what is absolutely transcendent.

BILL MOYERS: What can’t be known.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: What can’t be known.

BILL MOYERS: Or can’t be named.


BILL MOYERS: Except in our own feeble attempt to clothe it in language.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And the ultimate word in our language for that which is transcendent is God.

BILL MOYERS: Do you remember what went through your mind the first time you saw Michelangelo’s Creation?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: By the time I became aware of that, my notion of divinity was not quite so personal, you know. The idea of God, that he’s a bearded old man of some kind, with certain not very pleasant temperament, that is I would say a sort of materialistic way of talking about the transcendent.

BILL MOYERS: There’s just the opposite of it found on an island in the harbor of Bombay, from around the eighth century.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is a wonderful cave. You enter the cave from a bright sky. Of course, moving into the darkness, your eyes are blacked out. But if you just keep walking slowly, gradually the eyes adjust, and this enormous thing, it’s about 19-feet high and 19-feet across, the central head is the mask of eternity. This is the mask of God.

BILL MOYERS: The mask of eternity.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That is the metaphor through which eternity is to be experienced as radiance.

BILL MOYERS: And these other two figures?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Whenever one moves out of the transcendent, one comes into a field of opposites. These two pairs of opposites come forth as male and female from the two sides. What has eaten of the tree of the knowledge, not only of good and evil, but of male and female, of right and wrong, of this and that, and light and dark. Everything in the field of time is dual: past/future, dead/alive, being/nonbeing, is/isn’t.

BILL MOYERS: And what’s the significance of them being beside the mask of God, the mask of eternity? What is this sculpture saying to us?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The mask represents the middle, and the two represent the two opposites, and they always come in pairs. And put your mind in the middle; most of us put our minds on the side of the good against what we think of as evil. It was Heraclitus, I think, who said, “For God all things are good and right and just, but for man some things are right and others are not.” You’re in the field of time when you’re man, and one of the problems of life is to life in the realization of both terms. That is to say, I know the center and I know that good and evil are simply temporal apparitions.

BILL MOYERS: Well, are some myths more or less true than others?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: They’re true in different senses, do you see? Here’s a whole mythology based on the insight that transcends duality. Ours is a mythology that’s based on the insight OF duality. And so our religion tends to be ethical in its accent: sin and atonement, right and wrong. It started with a sin, you see. In other words, moving out of the mythological zone, the garden of paradise where there is no time, and where men and women don’t even know that they’re different from each other, there the two are just creatures. And God and man are practically the same: “He walks in the cool of the evening in the garden where we are.” And then they eat the apple, the knowledge of the pairs of opposites, and man and woman then cover their shame, that they’re different; God and man, they’re different; man and nature, as against man.

A few minutes later in the interview they compare Genesis with the origin story told by Basari people of Africa, which also involves God telling man & woman not to eat some fruit, and then doing so after talking with a snake. Then this exchange happens:

BILL MOYERS: What do you make of this, that in all of these stories the principal actors are pointing to someone else as the initiator of the fall?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, but it turns out to be Snake. And Snake in both of these stories is the symbol of life throwing off the past and continuing to live.


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Because the snake sheds its skin, just as the moon sheds its shadow. The snake in most cultures is positive. Even the most poisonous thing in India, the cobra, is a sacred animal. And the serpent, Naga, the serpent king, Nagaraga, is the next thing to the Buddha, because the serpent represents the power of life in the field of time to throw off death, and the Buddha represents the power of life in the field of eternity to be eternally alive.

BILL MOYERS: The Christian stories turn it around, because the serpent was the seducer.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, what that amounts to is a refusal to affirm life. Life is evil in this view. Every natural impulse is sinful unless you’ve been baptized or circumcised, in this tradition that we’ve inherited. For heaven’s sakes!

BILL MOYERS: By having been the tempter, women have paid a great price, because in mythology, some of this mythology, they are the ones who led to the downfall.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Of course they did. I mean, they represent life. Man doesn’t enter life except by woman, and so it is woman who brings us into the world of polarities and pair of opposites and suffering and all. But I think it’s a really childish attitude, to say “no” to life with all its pain, you know, to say this is something that should not have been.

Schopenhauer, in one of his marvelous chapters, I think it’s in The World as Will and Idea, says: “Life is something that should not have been. It is in its very essence and character, a terrible thing to consider, this business of living by killing and eating.” I mean, it’s in sin in terms of all ethical judgments all the time.

BILL MOYERS: As Zorba says, you know, “Trouble? Life is trouble. Only death is no trouble.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s it. And when people say to me, you know, do you have optimism about the world, you know, how terrible it is, I said, yes, just say, “It’s great!” Just the way it is.

BILL MOYERS: But doesn’t that lead to a rather passive attitude in the face of evil, in the face of wrong?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: You participate in it. Whatever you do is evil for somebody.

BILL MOYERS: That’s a pessimistic note.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I mean, you got to say yes to it and say it’s great this way. I mean, this is the way God intended it.

BILL MOYERS: You don’t really believe that?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, this is the way it is, and I don’t believe anybody intended it, but this is the way it is. And Joyce’s wonderful line, you know, “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” And the way to awake from it is not to be afraid and to recognize, as I did in my conversation with that Hindu guru or teacher that I told you of, that all of this as it is, is as it has to be, and it is a manifestation of the eternal presence in the world. The end of things always is painful; pain is part of there being a world at all.

BILL MOYERS: But if one accepted that isn’t the ultimate conclusion, to say, well, ‘I won’t try to reform any laws or fight any battles.’

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I didn’t say that.

BILL MOYERS: Isn’t that the logical conclusion one could draw, though, the philosophy of nihilism?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that’s not the necessary thing to draw. You could say I will participate in this row, and I will join the army, and I will go to war.

BILL MOYERS: I’ll do the best I can on earth.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I will participate in the game. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opera, except that it hurts. And that wonderful Irish saying, you know, “Is this a private fight, or can anybody get into it?” This is the way life is, and the hero is the one who can participate in it decently, in the way of nature, not in the way of personal rancor, revenge or anything of the kind.