Written by Stefan Sencerz, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Part 1 and part 2 of this series focus on angels in the Western tradition. Part 3 focuses on the Eastern tradition as does the following article, the final installment in the series.
There are, of course, some dissimilarities between devas and angels. For one thing, angels are not born and seem to be everlasting. Devas are born (or reborn) (Rg Veda i.143.2 and x.129.6) and do not remain in their heavens eternally. Although their life-spans are very long, eventually they exhaust their karma and are reborn in a different realm.
There are, however, some interesting similarities between them. Both devas and angels are purely spiritual (i.e., immaterial) beings. Devas seem to lack perfect knowledge or wisdom and generally do not interact with devas occupying plans of existence higher than their own.
They can also lack spiritual wisdom. For example, according to Kaushitaki Upanishad (Book 4), Indra was weaker than his adversaries, Asuras, before he come to know his own Atman (soul), suggesting a kind of spiritual awakening.
Indra and Sachi Riding the Divine Elephant Airavata, from a Panchakalyanaka (Five Auspicious Events in the Life of Jina Rishabhanatha ([Adinatha]), India
Perhaps most interestingly, both angels and devas display moral flaws. Some angels are excessively proud or jealous of humans. This leads to their rebellion against God and eventual fall. Similarly, many devas are too preoccupied with pleasures, failing to give proper respect to Buddha and his fully awakened disciples, who represent the perfect wisdom. Thus, they show a similar lack of humility.
Do angels and humans have more in common than we know? Could we, in fact, have been angels or devas in another life? The fact is, most of us do not remember our previous lives—should these exist. I surely do not. Maybe there is nothing to remember.
Maybe I have never been an angel and I have never fallen. Maybe I have always been just a bear, or a wolf, or a ghost, or a hungry spirit, or a human, or something. Maybe I am all of these at each and every moment. Maybe this is my one and only life. I don’t know. This is perhaps why I myself lean towards a metaphorical interpretation of the Six Realms.
Seeing With Many Eyes by Greg Calise
When my mother took me on a tour of Auschwitz, where she had been imprisoned, it was obvious to me that she had endured and survived hell. What we do to animals, especially on factory farms, looks to me like condemning them to hell, too. When I observe politicians clinging to power, they apparently act like asuras. When I do something on the first instinct and only later think about it, I seem to be acting like an animal. And when I give in to my insatiate appetites, it seems like I am a hungry ghost (preta).
Thus, perhaps, I do simultaneously occupy all planes of existence implied by the Wheel of Life and Death. I am both a human and an animal, both a hungry ghost and a heavenly dweller, both a deva preoccupied by pleasure and an asura driven by anger and hate. The ultimate meaning of the myth may be that various dispositions and aspirations coexist in each and every one of us.
A great haiku master Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), a devout Buddhist in Jōdo Shinshū or Amidist tradition, offers a poetic rendition of the myth of the Wheel of Life and Death.
Traditional bhavachakra wall mural of Yama holding the wheel of life, Buddha pointing the way out, photo by Ms Sarah Welch, Seattle, Washington
His six-part poem (translated here by Robert Haas) is entitled “The Six Ways”:
bright autumn moon –
pond snails crying
in the saucepan
The Hungry Ghosts
flowers scattering –
the water we thirst for
far off, in the mist
in the falling of petals–
they see no Buddha
*“Law” is the translation of the Buddhist term “Dharma” which could be also translated as the “Truth”
Malignant Spirits (asuras)
in the shadow of blossoms,
voice against voice,
we humans —
among the blossoming flowers
Written by Stefan Sencerz, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Parts 1 and 2 of this series focus on angels in the Western tradition. To read them, click here and here, respectively.
Angels in the Eastern Tradition
According to the Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, humanity has been migrating in the Grand Wheel of Life and Death, driven by our own karma that we have accumulated since time immemorial.
The Grand Wheel of Life and Death
Our own deeds determine a position, or a form of rebirth, in one of the “Six Realms of Existence”, defined as: humans, devas (heavenly dwellers, or as we might say in the West, angels), asuras (demi-gods or titans), animals, pretas (hungry and thirsty ghosts), or as beings tormented in one of numerous hells. What moves us from one realm to the other are emotions, dispositions, and blind desires, such as anger and hatred, cravings for pleasure, clinging to power and control. At the core of all of this is ignorance and lack of wisdom.
But no matter what drives us through the Wheel, no matter what obstacles and temptations we may encounter, and no matter what we are inclined to do, ultimately the decision is ours. Sometimes we yield to our cravings and attachments, and—driven by the winds of karma—continue being reborn.
However, we have an ability to transcend these desires, inclinations, cravings, and attachments and freely choose to follow the path of wisdom-compassion.
The realm of humans is considered the most auspicious in terms of spiritual awakening. In fact, some sources claim that it is the only condition allowing for such awakening or enlightenment.
Devas sporting in Heaven, mural in Wat Bowonniwet, Bangkok
Devas, or god-like beings, are frequently too preoccupied with pleasure to care about spiritual needs. Asuras, or demigods, are obsessed with power and jealousy. Animals lack intellectual abilities and their minds are not sophisticated enough to reach liberation. There is too much hunger and thirst in the lives of pretas, i.e., hungry and thirsty ghosts. And the enormous suffering in the realms of various hells makes spiritual practice borderline impossible.
Sometimes this myth is interpreted in two different ways. One view implies that the six realms denote real places where various beings are reborn; we might call this a “realist” interpretation. Yet another sees it as a symbolic representation of various “modes” of existence (e.g., of our various mental states and dispositions).
In this interpretation, it’s conceivable that various states sometimes coexist in one person, possibly even at the very same time. We might call this a “metaphorical” interpretation. These two interpretations are compatible; leaning towards one is frequently a matter of emphasis rather than accepting it exclusively and rejecting the other.
There is some textual evidence, both in Hindu and Buddhist writings, supporting the metaphorical interpretation of the myth. For example, early Vedas did not distinguish the realm of devas from the realm of asuras, they sort of lumped these beings together as if they were two aspects of the same mode of existence.
Consequently, in his commentary on the Vedic mythology, Ceylonese Tamil philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy observed that devas and asuras exemplify different orientations and inclinations, rather than separate kinds of beings. Devas represent the powers of light while asuras represent the powers of darkness. Both kinds of powers exist in each and every human being. Consequently, our choices can be influenced by varying dispositions and intentions:
[T]he Titan is potentially an Angel, the Angel still by nature a Titan; the Darkness in actu is Light, the Light in potentia Darkness; whence the designations Asura and Deva may be applied to one and the same Person according to the mode of operation, as in Rigveda 1.163.3, “Trita art thou (Agni) by interior operation” (Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Angel and Titan: An Essay in Vedic Ontology,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, volume 55 (1935), pp. 373-374).
Similarly, according to the sixteenth chapter of Bhagavad Gita, all beings in the universe have both the divine and demonic qualities (daivi sampad and asuri sampad). Pure god-like saints are as rare as pure demons, and most humans exemplify both characters in varying degrees.
Statues of asuras at the gates of Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia
A broadly analogous interpretation is suggested by some canonical Buddhist scriptures and Buddhist teachers. Indeed, the Buddha himself maintained that it is a mistake to think of hell as a place: “When the average ignorant person makes an assertion to the effect that there is a Hell (patala) under the ocean he is making a statement which is false and without basis. The word ‘Hell’ is a term for painful emotions”, he once said.
Consequently, preeminent Buddhist scholar and Theravada monk Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera, observes the following:
The idea of one particular ready-made place or a place created by god as heaven and hell is not acceptable to the Buddhist concept. The fire of hell in this world is hotter than that of the hell in the world-beyond. There is no fire equal to anger, lust or greed and ignorance. According to the Buddha, we are burning from eleven kinds of physical pain and mental agony: lust, hatred, illusion sickness, decay, death, worry, lamentation, pain (physical and mental), melancholy and grief. … [Where] there is more suffering, either in this world or any other plane, that place is a hell to those who suffer. And where there is more pleasure or happiness, either in this world or any other worldly existence, that place is a heaven to those who enjoy their worldly life in that particular place. (BuddhaSasana, “The Buddhist Concept of Heaven and Hell”).
This may be a somewhat unorthodox view of Ch’an and Zen approaches to Buddhism, but there are examples of famous Patriarchs supporting this metaphorical-humanistic interpretation of the Six Realms of Existence, thus shedding quite interesting light on how Buddhists think about paradise and hell.
The Buddha Descending from Tavatimsa Heaven
For example, the 12th century Chinese Master Tai Hui:
Heaven and hell are nowhere else but in the heart of the person while he’s half awake and half asleep before he’s gotten out of bed—they don’t come from outside. (Cleary, J.C., Swampland Flowers: the letters and lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui, Shambhala, 2006)
The same spirit is expressed in the following famous story involving the great Japanese Zen Patriarch, Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769):
A samurai came to the Zen Master Hakuin and asked “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”
Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.
“I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.
“You, a samurai!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar!”
The soldier became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued. “So, you have a sword! Your weapon is probably as dull as your head!”
As the soldier drew his sword Hakuin remarked “Here open the gates of hell!”
At these words, the samurai, perceiving the discipline of the master, sheathed his sword and bowed.
“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.
(A version of this story appears in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Tuttle Publishing 1998, p. 80. A search for this story in Japanese returns many slightly rephrased results but no one cites a source. It seems like it is an oral teaching. For generation, people have been retelling it with slight alterations before it was written down.)
In Wim Wenders’ movie, “Wings of Desire”, Peter Falk is credited as “himself” but really represents a fallen angel, the angel who had rejected his angelic nature, ceased to be but a spirit, and acquired a human body with all that it entails. In the film, angels “see” the world in black and white instead of in color like humans, a beautiful poetic device first adopted by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in their romantic fantasy “A Matter of Life and Death”.
Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire
To me, my sensations are what make me feel human. The first sip of hot coffee in the morning, a gentle kiss of a breeze on my neck, feeling the taut strings of a stunt kite tugging on my arms. Or falling in love: holding hands, a dance late into night, the smell of her hair, the magical moment right before our lips meet, the soft alabaster of her skin under my touch. This is how we, mortals, perceive and relate to reality.
To angels, all that could be but a set of highly abstract mathematical equations and complex geometrical figures. We surely feel their calm, soothing love but we humans are also creatures of passion. And passion is what they seem to lack. In turn, maybe sometimes angels need our passion, too. That’s what the character played by Falk seems to imply. Let me explain.
One of the biggest problems for a theist, the so-called “problem of evil”, concerns an apparent tension between God’s perfections (i.e., that God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing) and the fact that bad things happen even to good people.
Detail of angels from Giotto’s Crying Angels, Lamentation of Christ fresco, Padua, Scrovegni Chapel, 1305-13
One of the most important responses to this problem, originally put forth by the second century Greek theologian Irenaeus, is known as the “virtue or soul-making defense”. The gist of this defense is to postulate that bad things happen to us because they are necessary to build up our character. We need pain to develop empathy and compassion, obstacles are necessary to build up fortitude, those less fortunate to perfect generosity and the sense of justice and fear to become truly courageous.
This relatively simple response has some obvious problems. Namely, why do we have to struggle before fully realizing our potential? Why are we not created with already fully-developed characters? Isn’t it all some kind of cruel test or, even worse, a bad joke? Thus, the original form of virtue defense seems to require additional explanations.
Detail of Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation, 1434
The 20th century philosopher, theologian, and exponent of the virtue defense, John Hick, attempts to provide some answers in his seminal book “Evil and the God of Love” (1966). Hick postulates that developing virtues is more valuable than being created as already a fully developed being. To use a metaphor, the journey to reach the mountain top is more valuable than being magically transported there just to see magnificent sights. He also postulates that character growth must be based on genuinely free choices, choices that involve free will.
Now, free will seems incompatible with coercion. Force and even a reliable threat of using it seem to undermine our freedom. Thus, Hick postulates, God has to be somehow hidden from us; there must be some “epistemic distance” between God and his creation. Otherwise, we would be motivated by fear of God’s retribution rather than by a genuine desire for good. Consequently, our choices would be coerced and not truly free.
The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio, Rome, 1571-1610
In order to preserve this “epistemic distance”, God cannot intervene into human affairs too much, too obviously, and too openly. Too much help and too many miracles could give us certainty about God’s existence and plans. Remember, a dissolution of the “epistemic distance” from God would seriously undercut our free will. This is why God cannot remove every problem or obstacle that we may encounter. This is why, sometimes, we encounter difficulties that seem insurmountable.
Now, to return to angels, perhaps— like us— they are not yet fully realized, “completed” or perfect beings. Maybe they still have some work to do to actualize their potential, maybe they still have some mountains to climb. As paradoxical as it may seem, perhaps God maintains some “epistemic distance” from them, too. Otherwise, if they were fully in the presence of the Divine with the full understanding of God’s immense powers as well as his plans, could we really make sense of their fall? Could we really understand how they are able to make choices? Could we really comprehend how angels, too, seem to have free will?
Fallen angel painting, author unknown
Well, you could respond, can angels truly evolve if they are disembodied? Don’t they need pain, obstacles, doubts, and fear to fully develop their natures? Angels seem to lack all of this.
Thus, perhaps, something about them needs to thaw and open up too, so they can transcend their sophisticated yet sterile mathematical ideas and ethical imperatives and start using their senses and hearts.
Maybe, to be truly happy, to truly flourish, to fully realize their potential, angels too have to learn how to feel and not just how to reason. Perhaps this is the only way to transcend the world of “black-and-white”.
Still from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire
In Wender’s film, angels sometimes climb up high towers of churches and hang out on roofs of the tallest buildings as if waiting for the gift of a dawn. But there is always a price to be paid for not having senses. No matter how high they climb, no matter how high they fly, they’ll never see the flaming, crimson-orange rays of the setting sun.
Written by Stefan Sencerz, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Part 1: Angels in the Western Tradition
When Michelangelo accepted a commission to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, he stepped right into it. And by “it” I do not mean just an exquisite work of a breathtaking scope; that much is obvious. Rather, I mean the centuries-old debate concerning angels and the nature creation. You can see his input right there, on the ceiling of the chapel, painted into his frescoes for posterity. Both the first human, Adam, and all Michelangelo’s angels are endowed with navels.
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (detail)
Perhaps it’s not a surprise at all for someone adopting the 21st century perspective on arts. After all, the greatest artist of his era, Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) has established many artistic conventions. But the matters were much less clear during the times of High Renaissance. For example, there are no angelic navels at all in paintings of Leonardo. And there are but few of them in works by Raphael and none of these is very pronounced. And yet, interestingly enough, not only Adam and angels but also even God the Father himself are portrayed as endowed with navels.
The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1472–1475
Taken literally, this approach makes no sense. God is supposed to be a pure spirit not having any bodily parts. The first human is supposed to be created by God and not born from others. And even if angels have bodies, surely, they are not born from other beings, they are not flesh of other flesh. If they exist at all, either they are everlasting like God, in which case they have never come into existence, or else they are like Adam, brought into existenceby a direct divine act of the Creator. One way or another, why would they need to have navels and be portrayed as having them?
Now, to put Michelangelo’s choice in its historical and philosophical contexts, since time immemorial angels have been considered to be benevolent celestial beings mediating between Heaven and earth, sacred and profane, the world of the Divine and the world of mortals. That much has been constant. And just as consistently, philosophers and theologians have debated issues concerning their nature.
Some conceived angels to be mere messages from God or, perhaps, the divine tasks rather than real beings carrying those tasks. A radical position, indeed, but one that has some textual support at least in the context of the Scriptures.
For example, in the Book of Genesis, three angels visit Abraham (18:2) but only two meet Lot (19:1). The first one appears to inform Abraham about his coming child (18:10) and, after this task is completed, this angel is never mentioned again. The job of the other two was to protect Lot and to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah; so, they stayed with mortals quite a bit longer.
Lot Fleeing from Sodom, 1810, by Benjamin West
Pointing to passages like these, some esoteric teachings of Kabbalah suggest that, after the message is delivered or the task is completed, the angel literally ceases to exist.
This is not, however, the view that emerged as prevalent in Western and Middle Eastern circles. A more popular approach postulates that angels are not just messages but rather messengers, not just tasks but rather beings who carry those tasks, not just aspects of divine actions but rather independently existing “substances”.
If this is so, however, what kinds of beings are they? What are they made of? Do they have physical bodies like ordinary mortals or are they pure spirits unattached to anything physical?
Angel detail, The Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece by Francesco Pesellino, 15th century, National Gallery of Art
Again, let us turn to Scripture. Almost all encounters with angels begin with humans trembling in their presence and an angel saying “fear not” or “do not be afraid”. It seems obvious that angels were thought of as having not only immense powers but also a rather terrifying aspect or presence.
As Rainier Maria Rilke observed in both in the 1st and the 2ndDuino Elegy, “Ein jeder Engel is schrecklich” – “every angel is terrifying”.
Jacob wrestling with the angel, Italian School, 17th century
A far cry from representing them as sweet-looking babies with golden locks and delicate fairy wings or good-looking young ladies and lads painted by Michelangelo and Raphael! But whatever their looks might be, what does their physical aspect hide? Or what does it reveal?
Some thought angels to be essentially like humans in terms of having real physical bodies, eating real physical food, wearing real physical clothes, using real physical tools and, perhaps, even being able to mate with us.
Thus, to use but few examples, the cherub guarding the Garden of Eden is wielding a “flaming sword” (Genesis 3: 24); Abraham slaughters a calf and treats his visitors to a “fine meal”; and fallen angels have children with daughters of men (Genesis 6: 1-4).
Abraham Serving the Three Angels, by Rembrandt, 1646
The view that angels are, in part, made of physical stuff found its expression in their typical visual representations. The archangel Michael leading the forces of good in the heavenly war against the “dragon” (Revelation 12: 7-12). He is usually portrayed as a warrior wearing an armor and carrying a shield. (Below, on the left “Saint Michael Overthrowing the Demon” by Raphael and, on the right, “Saint Michael expelling Lucifer and the Rebellious Angels” by Peter Paul Rubens.)
Gabriel, described by Daniel (8:15) as appearing in “the likeness of man”, is frequently depicted as carrying a white lily or a cross. Eventually, depictions of angels were routinely seen as possessing not only heads, torsos, arms, legs, and wings but also even navels, as in Michelangelo’s frescoes.
Other theologians argued, however, that no matter how we might choose to represent angels, these images are but visual metaphors rather than the real thing. For, in reality, angels are pure spirits, disembodied intellects, bundles of mental energies unattached to anything physical.
However, this approach raises some fundamental philosophical questions. Having no bodies at all and thus no senses, how can angels see, hear, feel, smell, or taste? How do they perceive the world? How can they relate to us? What mediates between their surroundings and their subjectivity? If not senses and sensations, what anchors them to our “reality”?