The Nameless As Image: Narasiṃha


The layered term Upakausalya is effectively translated into English as ‘Skillful Means’, a term applied to the methods of a Teacher. To render Upakausalya is to speak at the speed of listening of the listener.

As one early text defines it: ‘As a learned grammarian would even teach the alphabet to a beginner’. Pedagogic expediency with eyes wide open.

But there is a big difference between using a Name in an act of ‘Skillful Means’ and applying one that emerged in a short-stopped denouement. A difference of night and day.

There is a serious risk that ‘Skillful Means’ ends up being very unskillful. With the wrong teacher or a misjudged audience, it can quickly take on a life of its own.

Over the years I have witnessed impenetrable drivel spewing forth from an ambitious Guru being treated as deep teaching meant only for the ear of the ready devotee. Every stupid act of the Teacher is turned around to mean something profound and necessarily cryptic.

And Skillful Means has its counterpart in the the listening audience, one of a very unskillful listening. Skillful Means is only meant to come half-way. You have to reach out to get it.

When Namelessness descends from the cryptic language of the early texts it needs to display in a way that viewers at various levels connect to it.

If the expression is visual, it has to be familiar yet not too familiar [just as ‘Nameless’ is a readable English word; see the Post on the Voyager messages]. A traditional deity has clearly recognizable human dimensions; but then spins off into the strange and the distant. It has arms, but more than two. Eyes, but many. And so on.

The story of Narasiṃha [literally, Man-Lion] told in the Vishnu Purana is an excellent example of how this works. Hiranyakashipu’s received boon that denies him death [‘neither day nor night; neither indoor nor out’] and the machinations of Vishnu to kill the Dharma-destroying violent demon makes up the story. [It is widely available in numerous translations as are the other major Puranas

You can make the symbolism very abstract and risk losing its meaning or have it aggressively distorted as happened with the Symbol ‘0’ or the Mantric expression AUM. Or you can go the other extreme and make it too familiar. [Mass-Media and the modern deification of Celebrities has its roots here.]  

The rendering of Jesus varies depending on the host-culture. From the standard authority-figure, older male with white beard, of Europe to the preference for the Madonna expression, of Mother Mary and Infant Jesus in Latin America.

When professional proselytizing priests and Evangelicals showed up in the later stages of the British Raj few things horrified them as much as the multi-armed deities.

The only ones more vocal in their shock tend to be newly converted Hindus who I have seen rail against the sexual frolics of Krishna and his Gopis. Gives me a much-needed chuckle.