Monday, September 29, 2003

Hindu cosmology and the Matrix

This post won't be quite as ambitious as its title promises; if you want to read some interesting pop-academic papers on the Matrix, go visit the official Matrix website's philosophy section. My favorite paper is the one titled "Wake up! Gnosticism & Buddhism in the Matrix." Very much up my alley. Another good one is Iakovos Vasiliou's "Reality, What Matters, and the Matrix."

Or if you want to spend some more money, buy The Matrix and Philosophy. This book has some very interesting papers in it, but it's also got some real duds, foremost of which is the final chapter, which is heavy-heavy duty postmodernist thinking.

If you watch only the first "Matrix" movie, it's very difficult to be wowed by the epistemological issues. A very neat, clear distinction is made between the green-tinted world of the Matrix, where you can be a cool-dressing fantasy superhero, and the blue-tinted "desert of the real," where everyone dresses in tatters, eats glop-snot, sleeps on a hard metal bed, and can't fuck unless they're on a stone catafalque. Neo's lucky: at least he gets the tasty treat of Trinity's tongue. In the meantime, the audience never needs to ask itself, "How do we know what's real?"

But "The Matrix Reloaded" did a fine job of subverting all the preconceptions we'd built up from the first movie, and took advantage of our confusion to introduce the epistemological issues that were lacking earlier. We start to wonder whether Morpheus is crazy, because not everyone in Zion believes him or the prophecy of the One. Huge hints are given that there are layers and layers of control (cf. the conversation with the Merovingian, and the very probable insincerity of the Architect).

By the end of "Reloaded," we're no longer sure that the world of Zion, which is ostensibly part of the "desert of the real," is in fact what it seems. The major giveaway is Neo's newfound superpower-- something I contend he can't possess outside the Matrix, because (as I said in my metaphysical bet with the Wachowskis) in the world of this trilogy, humans can't perform miracles. I stand by that belief.

So despite all the howls of "cop-out!" coming from the anti-meta-Matrix conventional crowd, I advocate an open-ended meta-Matrix hypothesis. Maybe it's an "onion" structure-- layers surrounding layers, with no end to the layering, and no apparent foundation.

But maybe it's an onion with interpenetrating layers. As I recently argued, the scene in which Neo talks with the Architect is filmed in a way that implies a reality that twists and turns in and through itself (btw, there's a hint of this in the first movie... remember when Neo is first taken into custody by the Agents and we initially see him in the interrogation room through a monitor screen, only to pass "Citizen Kane"-like through the screen and into the room?). Smith (formerly Agent Smith) seems to prove this as well when he moves "up" into the "real" world by taking over Bane's cyber-avatar and inhabiting the "real" Bane.

Hindu cosmology seems to capture this imagery very well. Hinduism isn't my field, but I had to gain some background in it in order better to place Buddhist thought and history in context. And, lucky for me, I happen to have brought along with me an excellent introductory text called, creatively enough, An Introduction to Hinduism, by Gavin Flood (Cambridge [UK]: Cambridge University Press, 1996), which was one of the texts I had to read in my Hinduism course at Catholic U.

Here's what Flood writes on p.70:

In vedic and later Hindu cosmologies, the universe is regarded as a hierarchical structure in which purer, more refined worlds are located 'above,' yet at the same time they incorporate, lower, impure worlds which, as in the segmentary Hindu kingdom, have some autonomy. In this hierarchical cosmology the various worlds or realms are governed by an overlord or god who also embodies the principles controlling or governing that world. ...There is a 'chain of being' within the Hindu universe...

During what is known by some scholars as the "epic period" of Indian history (c. 500 BCE to c. 500 CE), a type of literature called the Puranas arose. Most Puranas were written during the epic period, and largely dealt with the lives of the major Hindu deities and kings. Flood offers an overview of Puranic cosmology (p. 112):

The universe is conceptualized as an array of concentric circles spreading out from Mount Meru at the centre, enclosed within the vast 'world egg.' Immediately surrounding Meru is Jambu-dvipa, the earth or 'island of the rose-apple tree,' though itself several thousand miles from Meru. Jambu-dvipa is surrounded by a salt ocean. Spreading out from here are seven further lands and various kinds of ocean made of sugar-cane juice, wine, ghee, buttermilk, milk, and sweet water, until the realm of darkness is reached by the outer shell of the egg. [...] Within Jambu-dvipa are a number of lands, including India (Bharata) which is subdivided into nine regions... Below and above the level of the earth in the cosmic egg are further layers. Below the earth are the seven underworlds and below them at the base of the egg, the hell realms... Above the earth (bhur) are the atmosphere (bhuvas), sky (svar) and various other worlds up Mount Meru to the 'true world' (satyaloka) at the top. This entire cosmos is populated by all kinds of beings; humans, animals, plants, gods, snake-beings (naga), nymphs (apsara), heavenly musicians (gandharva), demonic beings (paisaca) and many more, and one can be reborn into any of these realms depending upon one's action (karma). Life in all these worlds is, of course, impermanent and one will eventually be reborn elsewhere. Neither hell nor heaven are permanent here.

So we see that, in this cosmology, the layers of reality interpenetrate. The beings of each realm aren't necessarily confined to their own realm. People can encounter spirits, for example. You can also find yourself reincarnated into a realm different from your previous realm; your self (atman) has breached the "layers." A third example of this interpenetration is the Hindu concept of avatara, which we often translate into English as "incarnation" (I won't get into the problems of cross-religious homeomorphism here; we'll just assume "incarnation" is a "good enough" translation of "avatara"). Krsna is an avatar of the god Vsnu, for example; God breaks (or as Mircea Eliade might say, "erupts") into the human realm, just as the heroes of the "Matrix" trilogy travel the Matrix as cyber-avatars, roaming a universe whose properties seem distinctly different from the rules governing the "desert of the real."

The Architect tells Neo that the Matrix is older than he realizes. Hindu cosmology is also ambitious in its conception of time. On p. 113 Flood says this:

The total period of four yugas [Kevin's note: four ages, each successively more decadent as dharma, order, slides into adharma, chaos; we are currently in the kali yuga, the fourth age; the four ages span about 4.32 million years] is called a manvantara, the age or life-period of a Manu. After 1,000 manvantaras, which comprise one day for Brahma, the universe will be destroyed by fire or flood and undergo a night of Brahma of the same period (i.e. 1,000 manvantaras), until the the process begins again for all eternity. A kalpa is one such night and day of Brahma comprising 8,649 million years. There is no end to the process; nor purpose other than the Lord's play (lila).

The Matrix is old. Maybe we can't trust the Architect on this point (or regarding anything else he said), but it would certainly be in keeping with the Hindu paradigm. And if the Badly Typed Matrix Spoiler (hereinafter BTMS or the "Bitmus") is correct, then it may well be that we are looking at a Matrix with no fundamental purpose, no real end, and a murky beginning.

Take a gander at one of the most famous Hindu creation myths, from the Rig Veda (10.129):

Then was neither non-existence nor existence:
There was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered it, and where?
And what gave shelter?
Was there an unfathomed depth of water?

Death was not then, nor was there anything immortal:
no sign was there, [of] the day's and night's divider.
That One Thing,
breathed by its own nature:
apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

Darkness there was:
at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and formless:
by the great power of Warmth was born that One.

Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire,
the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart's thought discovered
the kinship of existence with non-existence.

Transversely [across the universe] was their dividing line extended:
what was above it then,
and what below it?
There were begetters, there were mighty forces,
free action here and energy up yonder.

Who verily knows and who can here declare it,
whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world's production.
Who knows then
whence it first came into being?

the first origin of this creation,
whether he formed it all or did not form it,
whose eye controls this world in highest heaven,
he verily knows it,
or perhaps
he knows it not.

If you followed the link to RV X129, you'll notice I chopped the versification up a bit to give you a more poetic sense of what's going on. I also did this because some scholars note that the final line, "or perhaps he knows (it) not," might actually have been a later addition, perhaps even by some Hindu wiseass who wanted to inject a bit of doubt and humor into the proceedings (I think the scholar RC Zaehner argued this, but I'd have to check). I consider it a wise addition to the poem (if addition it was).

And it's relevant to this view of the Matrix as lacking telos, lacking an end or purpose. Lila, divine play, is an important Hindu concept, and I wonder whether the Wachowskis are engaging in a cinematic version of this. The unkind will call this "yanking our chain." But if you're a Hindu, or someone sensitive to Hindu tropes, you might just get a grin from what the Wachowskis are trying to do.

It was early in S. Mark Heim's provocative Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion that I encountered a passage recounting an exchange between a Hindu monk and a Muslim, in which the monk offered the insight that reality is a dream, and we are dreams talking to dreams. Here's the passage (p. 13):

When we are in it, a dream can be extremely vivid, [the monk] told us. We feel its objects, we move in its world. Yet in the instant of awakening we realize completely that the dream was but a veil for our actual place and being. Just so will our present world appear when we achieve moksha [liberation]. One of the Muslim students frankly shared his puzzlement. If this world is like a dream, he asked, then what are we to you, or you to us? Are we illusions, figments of each other's imagination? The monk adjusted his robes with a smile. "We are dreams, talking to dreams." He was silent for a moment, while we savored the peculiar beauty of this image. "But of course," he went on, "you will ask me 'Who is having this dream?' And I will tell you that it is Brahman who is having this dream, and it is Brahman who each of us is when we wake up."

[S. Mark Heim. Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion. Maryknoll [NY]: Orbis, 1995.]

This insight, of course, isn't unique to Hinduism, but again, it fits the thesis of the Hindu paradigm, and seems to fit my speculation that what we've been witnessing may in fact be a computer meditating on itself. I need to check more sources, but if I can, I'll see if I can come up with more Hindu examples of "God dreaming." In any case, many Christians are no strangers to the idea that everything occurs in the mind of God.

We'll have a better idea about all this come November.

It may turn out that the two spoilers (Scott's "deluded robot" speculation and the Bitmus) were complete, albeit clever, bullshit. I almost hope so, because I'm suffering from guilt after succumbing to the temptation to follow Glenn's links. My own long-ago post haunts me:

We'll all know in November, I suppose. I quite deliberately haven't checked the rumor sites on this one. Have you?

You prying bastard.

Well, hell if I didn't finally pry.

Majimakeuro (lastly)...

It's become standard operating procedure for Matrix pundits to step back after making their breathless pop-philo sci-fi geek spiel to say, "I realize none of this means anything consequential outside the context of the film." I'm not quite so apologetic because I value the mental exercise that comes with chewing over a trilogy this rich in symbolism and references (I haven't concentrated on it, but there's plenty of fodder for historians, too). The Wachowskis themselves, unlike some other auteurs, have encouraged this with a grin, and I suspect they won't be revealing "the true meaning" of their series, ever. If anything, their stance will be similar to George Lucas's, when he said he wanted the Force to have elements recognizable to people of different traditions: you take from it what you bring to it. Like the tree that reeks of the dark side of the Force in "The Empire Strikes Back."

What's in there?
Only what you take with you.

So viewing the "Matrix" trilogy through a Hindu filter is only one way to view it. There are other filters. We haven't even touched the whole issue of Plato's Cave, for example. My own take is that the first "Matrix" is more religious than philosophical-- heavily Gnostic-Christian-Buddhist, with a lot of Jesus, Moses, and Buddha imagery. "Reloaded" seems more pomo-Hindu, with a soupçon of the tropes from the first movie. And I expect "Revolutions" to go full-out with the Hinduism at its conclusion, because Hindu cosmology is, to my mind, some of the most complex (and entertaining... and paradoxical...) cosmology out there.

Meantime, I have to go find and watch the first Wachowski movie, "Bound." Purely for academic reasons, of course. Nothing to do with sapphic yumminess.

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