Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Chosen Ideal

The term Chosen Ideal is a popular translation of the Sanskrit word ishta devata, which basically means “favorite deity”or (your) “divine lord.”  The chosen ideal is important in Hindu spiritual practice (sadhana) and is, at least in the nondualistic and qualified nondualistic forms of Hinduism, the personal representation of an impersonal and attributeless divinity. It is “God with form”or “God with attributes” in a philosophical system that believes that all the gods are one god, that god is Reality itself, and that enlightenment is the realization and identification with that Reality.

Ishta is related to the word Ishvara=Lord and Ishvari=Lady.  In Hindu philosophy, Ishvara is the Supreme Being that becomes the world through self-sacrifice. Ishvari is the divine nature and energy of the universe. As mentioned, in certain forms of Hinduism, the highest idea of God is that God is indefinable and beyond any attribute. To relate and aspire to it, the human mind will naturally create a form—or forms—and then interact with the form. This form is the ishta devata or chosen ideal. 

If you want to understand what Ishvara/Ishvari are in the western neopagan sense, contemplate the Charge of the Goddess, which Gerald Gardner, the father of Wicca, and his erstwhile colleague Doreen Valiente adapted from a hymn in homage to the Egyptian goddess Nuit from Aleister Crowley’s Gnostic Mass:

. . . She in the dust of whose feet are the hosts of heaven and whose body encircles the universe:

 "I who am the beauty of the green earth, and the white moon among the stars, and the mystery of the waters, call unto thy soul:  Arise, and come unto me.  For I am the soul of nature, who gives life to the universe.  From Me all things proceed, and unto Me all things must return; and before My face, beloved of gods and of men, let thine innermost divine self be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.  . . . For behold, I have been with thee from the beginning; and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.

[image of nuit]

Compare this to a portion of the Narayani Stotram of the Devi Mahatmyam:

You are the sovereign goddess of all that is moving and unmoving. You are the sole substratum of the universe, existing in the form of earth. In the form of water, you nourish the universe. You are the power of the All Pervading Lord and of limitless courage. You are the primordial seed of the Universe . . .  All forms of knowledge are your aspects. All women in the world are endowed with your various attributes . . . Praise to you, Abode of Mankind, who abides as intelligence in all beings and bestows enjoyment and liberation. . . . As the Self of the Universe, you support the Universe. . . Those who are devoted to you themselves become the refuge of the Universe.

 In these prayers, the goddess is not a sky fairy; she is reality itself. Hindu prayers to other deities—male and female—extol them in similar ways, though, using similar words. That is, any deity can be singularly associated with the supreme deity. We have a relationship with a transcendental idea of deity by relating to that deity as an entity with attributes that we are in relationship with. Furthermore, deities are composites of symbols.  When you look at an image, it is not a statue; it is a story. Every aspect of the image is pregnant with symbolism meant for contemplation. The story told in an image about the deity, is about deity, the nature of existence, and yourself.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the ishta devata is called a Yidam. It is a term that more strongly denotes the idea of self-integration with an ideal or truth. According to Sarah Harding, a Tibetan translator and lama in the Kagy├╝ school of Vajrayana Buddhism: “The word is said to be a contraction of yid kyi dam tshig, which essentially means to bind one’s mind (yid) by oath to a deity who embodies enlightened mind.”  She explains:

“Yidams may be sambhogkaya buddhas, tantric deities, bodhisattvas, dharma protectors or historical figures. In all cases, the yidam is the very manifestation of enlightenment  . . .  ”

The sadhana that is applied is similar to that applied when working with the ishta devata in devotional ritual, especially when following Tantric ritual:

“In visualizing the yidam deity, we use our creative imagination to shift our natural self-imaging tendency, using imagery that is ultimately more ‘real’ than our current conditioned rendition of reality. Thus, the re-visualized self is the yidam deity and the re-imagined world is the mandala of the yidam appearing to one's pure perception. During the process of the sadhana, one must relate with the yidam both as an object of reverence and a source of blessing.”

In Buddhism, depending on the lineage in which you are studying, your guru (lama) may assign a yidam to you to work with—and this will come with specific instructions and observances. A similar course is taken with an ishta devata in certain forms Hinduism. A mandala or yantra and mantra associated with the yidam may be used. A mandala is a symbolic field or world in which the yidam resides and is itself a complex tapestry of symbols for contemplation. A yantra is a design that is a geometric vibration of the deity that also acts as a map of a specific line of contemplation and realization about the nature of that deity and, by extension, of Reality itself. The person working with a deity is initiated into how to work with its associated mandala or yantra.

The yidam or the devata also may be a god-form that you naturally have an affinity for or feel a natural calling to. You may work alone or with a teacher to explore this. Again, sometimes people have mystical experiences in which the deity presents itself to them in some way, and the bond and exploration begin there.

Tutelary Deity
The equivalent of the chosen ideal in Christianity is the patron saint. In polytheistic systems, the chosen ideal is called the tutelary deity, anthropologically speaking. A patron saint or tutelary deity might be a personal daimon or genius—to use the antique Hellenist and Romano terms. Other terms are eudaimone, augoeides, and ever-popular Holy Guardian Angel (HGA).

In ceremonial magic, especially ceremonial magic since the turn of the 20th century, the chosen ideal in a guise similar to the oriental one is called the augoeides or HGA.

The term augoeides means “luminous being” in Greek, which happens to be what the Sanskrit word deva literally means.  (We get the Latin word Deus from the same root Proto-Indoeuropean language. The word Zeus is epistemologically related to the words deva and deus, from the Sanskrit word Dyaus, meaning “heavenly.” Dyaus Pitre means “Heavenly Father” in Sanskrit, which is what the Roman name Iupiter literally means.)

The term augoeides was used by a Neoplatonist named Porphyry who lived during the 3rd century and was the student of the father of Neoplatonism, Plotinus. Plotinus identified the augoeides as a personal daimon in commentary on content from Plato (10th chapter of the Republic and the end of Timaeus, also Phaedo). It is described as a perfect, divine idea of oneself to aspire to. Through it, a person transcends the limitations of his incarnation and circumstance.

This idea—the idea of recognizing, honoring, and working with one’s personal daimon or genius—is central to Pythagorean and Neoplatonic mysticism and also Greco-Roman spirituality in general. One was to identify with one’s ideal. Becoming divine and establishing refuge in a divine ideal, one could get a pass out of Hades and possibly even the wheel of rebirth and proceed to the realm of the divine.

Kabala and Hermeticism figured into early medieval mysticism, and later Neoplatonism, which sort of disappeared with the ascendancy of Christianity, was rediscovered in about the 15th century. In the 14th century, a book surfaced called The Book of Abramelin, thought to be the work  a German Jewish Kabbalist. It outlines material on ceremonial magic and specifically is a very long and involved magical operation to realize a “Holy Guardian Angel.” After attaining this, one is promised all kinds of magical powers not unlike siddhis known in yoga (e.g., powers of magical flight, materialization, longevity, and other special abilities). 

At the turn of the 20th century (1897), The Book of Abramelin was partially and somewhat inaccurately translated by Samuel MacGregor Mathers, who was the founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He conflated the term with the Neoplatonic term Augoiedes.  Aleister Crowley, who belonged to the Golden Dawn, began to do work with and write about the Holy Guardian Angel and developed his own ideas about what it was and rites about achieving it. You can find these rites online. The idea is more or less the same as in Hinduism and Buddhism—to become your divine ideal and become empowered by it. For Crowley, this was to realize your true self and True Will.

Spiritual Guides, Genii, Inner Plane Adepti, and Astral Lovers
Among magical practitioners, it is also not uncommon for them to relate to what you might call a spiritual guide or even an entity or projection that is experienced as a presence that acts as an astral lover, a mentor, or ideal to the point that it becomes a personal godform. These entities are not chosen or fabricated; they arise as presences to a person. Whether they are real spiritual entities or projections or fragments of one’s own consciousness is a point that a person needs to decide for himself. The caveat is that a person has to have a strong footing in reality when these entities arise because similar phenomena happen to psychologically unstable persons who cannot distinguish between the world of their mental or spiritual or mystical experience and functional reality.

Invocation and the Chosen Ideal
In magic ritual and shamanism, there are practices in which a person becomes the deity. In the extreme, this takes the form of possession trances (being “ridden” by the deity). It is a feature within shamanic traditions. Loss of consciousness and/or disinhibition is common. In mystical, including magically mystical, and Tantric-based practices, when identification with the ideal is achieved, illuminated consciousness (not loss of consciousness) is experienced; the practitioner is poised in the power and expression of the deity.

Selected Bibliography

S Chatterjee and D Data.  The Vedanta Philosophy. In: An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Calcutta: The University of Calcutta, 1984.
Aleister Crowley. Liber VIII: The Ritual Proper for the Invocation of Augoeides www.themagickalreview.org/classics/liber_0008php
Nevil Drury. Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult.San Francisco. Harper & Row. 1985.
Sarah Harding. Yidam. Buddhadharma The Practitioners Quarterly. www.thebuddhadharma.com/issues/2005/spring/dharma_dictionary.html.
Samuel MacGregor Mathers. Invocation of the Augoeides, The Luminous Self Being the Invocation of Holy Guardian Angel / True Will http://home.earthlink.net/~xristos/GoldenDawn/augoeides.htm
Nikhilananda, trans. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Mylapore, Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1974.

Plotinus. Our Tutelary Spirit. In: The Enneads. Translated by Stephan MacKenna. London: Penguin Books. 1991.

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  1. "The equivalent of the chosen ideal in Christianity is the patron saint. In polytheistic systems, the chosen ideal is called the tutelary deity, anthropologically speaking. A patron saint or tutelary deity might be a personal daimon or genius."

    I would say that in Christianity, Ishvara (following Adi Shankaracharya's Vedanta-Advaita interpretation of the inmanent God) is homeomorphically equivalent with Catholic ("universal") Christ, because He is the fullness of life, the conceivable symbol of reallity and the inmanent God -Ishvara as Saguna Brahman. Because this Fullness has so many names, is called in the Christian tradition Jesus *the Christ*, representing a *particular* Ishta-devata that belongs to the particular Christian kairos. Hence, the Buddhist equation "whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form" -as per Nagarjuna's madhyamaka- is expressed in the Christian tradition as Christ (Saguna Brahman) being the "Way to the Father (Nirguna Brahman)", being the Spirit the "non-dual (advaita)" link that unites boths in the Trinity. Saints, from an oriental point of view, are "just" protrayers of the Dharma.

    Regarding the greek Daimon, from a Christian point of view, theopractically speaking, the voice of the genius is comparable with the "good and bad" spirit of the Ignatian exercises, being the good spirit a colorful expression of the intuitive presence and guide of the Holy Spirit expressing its gift of discernment (comparable with Crowley's True Will but without the arbitrary teleology protrayed by "The Book of the Law").

    All the best.

    1. Thank you for the insightful comments. My essay on the Chosen Ideal was distilled from a slide lecture I presented while involved in a neopagan group several years ago. (I had taken a a few years' detour from long-time interests in the Vedanta to explore neopagan and the Western Mystery Tradition ). The idea of the patron saint as chosen ideal is probably more of an Old World Catholic convention than a Christian one (in the broader sense of "Christian"). I think the idea of the universal Christ is more of a Gnostic concept than a traditional Christian one. Ishvara from the Advaita Vedanta standpoint is philophically defined as the Logos or Saguna Brahman (God as the Soul/Guiding Principle of the World). For Plotinus, the Jupiter seems to have embodied a similar role as the third principle of the Triple. Hypostasis.

      As for the idea of the daimon/genius. This was something central to Greco-Roman spirituality but morphed as monotheism and Christianity emerged. The idea of honoring, consulting, or being moved by a daimon or deity was looked down upon as a kind of sorcery. The concept was replaced by the idea of angels and demons.

      I have taken a break from fiction writing, which this blog primarily supports, and am involved in art and illustration. One of my current projects is depicting people as their "spiritual ideals." I am finding that the term means vastly different things to different people. The project is a great a great exercise for me to see where human minds are at spiritually beyond what culture, society, and books tell them spirituality is. The website showcasing my art and following this "Spiritual Ideal Project" is not up as of today, but will probably be up by mid August 2015 or sooner. The address is www.deerapposelli.com

    2. Thank you for your detailed reply. My comment about Christ as the symbol of reality is not taken from a gnostic teaching at all; it is the result of reading traditional --Catholic-- Christology through its pluralistic and interreligious hermeneutic. This notion of Christ --as universal and human-- must include both the figure from the historic past as well as the present reality. The pre-existence of the Logos, and the presence of the Holy Spirit of Christ in the prophets indicate some means of approaching the dynamic of Christ as universal Symbol of Reallity. As conduit for creation and principle for Creation, the eternal Logos has the potentiality for doing some of the work that this symbol does. Also, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the prophets opens up a place for the revelation of God distinct from the historical manifestation of the Logos in Christ-Jesus. Note that I said that Christ is homeomorphically equivalent with Ishvara. By that I mean that Christianity and Hinduism are functionally the same (both of them are projects of salvation), but they are not *identical*, therefore I am avoiding any attempt of syncretism, what I hold is a *plural* vision, respecting the difference of each religious kairos.

      Regarding Christianity as a monotheistic religion, by breaking away from abrahamic monotheism asserting the *radical relationality* of the trinity --through a deeper understanding of this relationality as a non-dual "process"--, Christians can hold a Christology that account for Christ in a fashion which deals with the new ways of seeing the world and reality, making Christianity truly universal and Catholic. Truth be said, this last bite is not "theologically traditional", but it is *theologically consistent*.

      As for the idea of the daimon/supernatural assistant, I would say that the idea was *integrated* as the guide and the gift of discernment of spirits given by the Holy Ghots --sometimes through the agency of angels (including the personal guardian angel) and so on and so forth--. Remember that the Church Fathers highlighted the similarity of truths held by Christianity and paganism explaining that both shared the same logos spermatikos, so it can not be a "replaced" teaching, but an actualized one.

      I've been watching your artwork, thank you for sharing it. Your idea of the "spiritual ideals" --which I understand as the capacity of individuation of each person through a symbol-- is highly interesting. I find it quite kierkegaardian! :)

      Best wishes.