As I got ready to post this, I noticed this post from Levi Bryant on what strikes me as a close analogue to what I am discussing here, in a very different and modern key. What Bryant calls daimons--"objects that bring other objects together"--is in some ways very near to what I mean by "correspondences" below. Of course I don't mean that Bryant and I are talking about exactly the same thing, but I think it lends some support to at least a prima facie case for the continued relevance of an ancient trope.
I said above that the interpretation of mythology is already a properly philosophical endeavor. This understanding offers us a way into the interaction between contrasting discourses. A myth from Vedic India offers us a glimpse of this intersection at a time when the rationale was being worked out:
The story is from the Jaiminiya Brahmana.(II.69-70) Like most of the Brahmanas, the story I am thinking of is a mythical rationale for a ritual. Prajapati, the “Lord of Creatures” (as close as one gets to a “creator” in the Vedic tradition) and Mrtyu, Death, have a ritual battle. The contest remains at a stand-off, with neither party attaining the upper hand, until Prajapati in meditation begins to discern a network of connections or correspondences between his ritual paraphernalia and that of Mrtyu.
At that time, the weapons of sacrifice were the same as these weapons of sacrifice used today. What is chanted, what is recited, what is being acted, that was Prajapati’s party. What on the other hand is sung to the lute, what is danced, what is frivolously done [or: done for mere entertainment], that was Mrtyu’s party. The parties of both were equally strong; as much as the one had, so had the other. For long, for many years, they tried to defeat each other, with no decision.Eventually, however, Prajapati in meditation perceived
this sampad (falling-together) in sacrifice, this samkhyana (numerical coincidence)…therewith he defeated Mrtyu. When defeated, his soma wasted away. Falling backwards, to the western end of the sacrificial ground, he took refuge in the women’s hall….Now there is no sacrificial contest anymore. What was the second sacrifice wasted away. The sacrifice is only one. Prajapati is himself the sacrifice.This narrative takes its extremely compressed form because of its genre; the Brahmanas are comprised of notes to sacrificial protocol. They are addressed to priests, who are already aware of the ritual actions and accoutrements. The myth provides an account of the secret significances of these things; for (as the texts constantly reiterate) “he who knows thus,” that is, according to the equivalences, “is immortal.” In view of its extreme economy of form, however, one might be justified in sampling the somewhat more expansive retelling of Roberto Calasso:
Prajapati was staring straight ahead, at Death….As he waited, Prajapati ran through everything that served as a frame to Death, a frame that amounts to everything that is…. He thought, “This is like that, this corresponds to that, this is the equivalent of that, this is that.” A vibration, a tension, a euphoria flooded his mind. If this is that, then that corresponds to this other thing—he went on. Slender bonds wrapped themselves like ribbons around this and that. The bonds stretched, invisible to many, but not to the one who put them there…. with the eye that wanders, evokes images, numbers, words, he went on getting things to “fall together,” sometimes things that were far apart, getting them to coincide. And the further apart they were, the more exhilarated he felt. The existent world—prickly, numb, empty—let itself be covered, taken, gathered, enveloped, in the mesh of a fabric. …every dapple of vegetation, every outline of a rock, concealed a number, a word, an equivalence: a mental state that clung and mingled with another mental state. As if every state were a number. As if every number were a state. This was the first equivalence, origin of all others. Then Prajapati…. thought: “If the sampads elude me, who am myself thinking them, they will be all the more elusive for Death, who knows nothing of them. (Calasso, Ka p 27)These correspondences allow Prajapati to assimilate Mrtyu’s array to his own, whereby Death is defeated in the ritual contest. But the sampads are not a finite set of equivalences between these two sets; they are an underlying order which unites the whole universe in an infinite variety of different correspondences. It is for this reason that “knowing thus” can render one “immortal.”
The equivalences are numerical, symbolic, etymological. Sanskrit is replete with terms for such closeness; there is bandhu (counterpart); samkhydna (numerical equivalents); even upanishad, which can connote the closeness between master and disciple, but also can simply mean something like “secret connection.” These equivalences are first and foremost a ritual grammar; in the Vedic context they are the rationale for the various moves and ingredients in the sacrifices, whether the meter of a hymn, the number of bricks in the altar, the time of day deemed appropriate, the order of the gods invoked, the participants invited.
It will be worth our while to look in detail for a moment at some examples of these connections, in part simply to drive home how multifarious they, their rationale, or their application, can be. Anyone first making acquaintance with the Vedas is confronted by immediate evidence of the bewildering variety of the gods, a variety which is complicated by what at first looks to be a confusion among them. Siva, for instance, is frequently conflated with the archer Rudra (“roarer,” but also possibly “shining”), in part because Siva’s name is plausibly derived from a Dravidian term meaning both “auspicious” and “red,” (terms which also function in proposed derivations of Rudra). Both Rudra and Siva are (in turn) also called Agni, fire (in Siva’s case this has to do in part with his association with the rising heat of psycho-sexual energy or tapas). But Siva is also an epithet for Indra. Siva is one of the three gods of the Hindu trimurti, along with Brahman and Vishnu; however, in another schema (the Smarta tradition), Siva is one of five aspects of the godhead, along with Vishnu, Devi, Suya and Ganesh.
The same epithets and titles are met with in connection with disparate gods; and figures are given curious roles: the sage Brhaspati is called “the brahman of the gods,” for instance; he is also the planet Jupiter, and rules over the fifth day of the week. Likewise, in different contexts, the sun (for instance) is called the eye of the god Mitra; the severed head of Rudra; a god in itself (which drives moreover the well-established solar chariot complete with fiery horses); a heavenly goose; a clay pot glowing red-hot in the sacrificial fire; or a fire itself, aloft in the sky.
A typical passage in the Kapisthalakatha Samhita (47.3) says of the priest-sacrificer:
He brings forth the waters. The waters are the sacrifice. Having stretched out the sacrifice, he proceeds. The waters are the abode favored by the gods. Having brought forward the abode favored by the gods, he starts. Demon-slaying waters are used. This serves to beat away the demons. The waters are a club. He hurls forth a club, against rivalry.This passage, with its considerable compression, is proffering an account and an explanation of a particular ritual sacrifice, made for the purposes of getting an advantage over rivals. The water “is the sacrifice,” a radical identity which points to the bootstrapping of the origins of the sacrificial system. (Indeed in the Satapatha Brahmana, Prajapati "the year" is even identified with his rival Mrtyu, death.) The gods are summoned by the sacrificer “bringing forth” the waters to the place of sacrifice, because the gods “favor” the waters as their abode. Likewise, the waters can be used against demons; they are “a club” used against them, and indeed against the sacrificer’s rivals. Water is here: a sacrifice itself, an ingredient in the sacrifice, a realm, a weapon combating demons, and a weapon against the actual human rivals. These explanations are provided in a text in order that the sacrifice may harness the power of the ritual; it is by knowing these secrets that he can accomplish the magical goal of the sacrifice. Indeed, in some contexts, it is clear that knowing these interpretations may itself be enough.
To some degree, the equivalences stem (in the rationale of the Vedic mind) from accounts of origin:
Prajapati declares: “May I reproduce.” From his mouth he measured out the trivrt (nine-versed) hymn. Then the god Agni was brought forth, the gayatri meter, the rathantra chant; among human beings the Brahmin; among animals, the goat. Therefore they are foremost, for they came forth from the mouth. From his chest and arms he measured out the pancadasa (15-versed) hymn. Then the god Indra was brought forth, the tristubh meter, the brhat chant; among humans, the Ksaitriya; among animals, the sheep. Therefore they are strong, for they came forth from strength. From his middle he measured out the saptadasa (17-versed) hymn. Then the deities the Visvadevas came forth, the jagati meter, the vairupa chant; among humans, the Vaisya; among animals, the cow. Therefore they are to be eaten, for they were brought out from the receptacle of food. Therefore they are more abundant, for they were brought forth after the most abundant of the gods. From his feet he measured out the ekavimsa (21-versed) hymn. Then the anustubh meter came forth, the vairaja chant; among humans, the Sudra; among animals, the horse. Therefore these two, horse and Sudra, are dependent on others. Therefore the Sudra is not fit for the sacrifice, for he was not brought forth with any diety. Therefore they support themselves by their feet, for they were brought forth from the feet. (Taittiriya Samhita VII.1.1.4-6).Note here the way that the cosmogonic myth is pressed into service to account for social relations (the priority of the Brahmins, the exclusion of the Sudras). The alignments outlined here remain relatively stable across the Vedic literature, according to the scholars I have read and my own far more schematic familiarity. Other correspondences are specific to particular texts or myths. Their various rationales might be etymological, numerological, analogical, narrative; they might hinge upon a purely “surface” similarity (the roundness of the pot and the sun; the similarity in sound between asva, horse, and asru, tear—these and some other examples cited here are from this paper by Michael Witzel); upon a narrative or characterological coincidence (for instance, Arjuna and Rudra are both archers); upon a lexical equivalence; as, for instance, taking an entry at random from the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary, Ma can be: the base of the first person pronoun; time; poison; a magic formula; the fourth note of the scale; the moon; the name of Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, or Yama; happiness; water. (This plural significance is of course a frequently noted feature of “primitive words;” it figures in Freud.) Still other equivalences, like that of the sun with an eye or a goose, or the waters with a club, are more strictly context-dependent. But what is always at play is a readiness to cross categories that to our minds are sealed from one another.
That the correspondences are not unique to the Vedas is obvious. They arise in every culture where “primitive thought” begins to take its bearings. The sampads are simply the unfolding of totemism or animism, as can be seen from a cursory look through anthropological literature, no matter which teachers one adopts as ones standard. They are, in other words, the traces of participated reality. They are also astonishingly long-lived, unfolding up to the present day, through mystical systems, mnemonics, liturgy, poetry.
I will adopt the terms sampad, correspondence, and equivalence as more or less synonymous terms for the idea of a correlation between two or more features of the world—whether natural or cultural.
Philosophy has two interests in the correspondences. One is simply reconstructive: it is scholarly, and in this role the sampads provide us a window of understanding upon spiritual, philosophical and literary traditions with which philosophy must be concerned. In this connection, the sampads allow us to read, say, Hegel, or Giordano Bruno, or Boethius, or Empedocles; but also to read Yves Bonnefoy or Ezra Pound or Laura Riding, Holderlin or Blake or Racine, Chaucer or Dante or the troubadours. Above all they open up for us the mythical matrix out of which philosophy fermented—the spiritual vocabularies and practices with which philosophy remained in continual dialogue and tension.
A second and perhaps deeper significance of the equivalences for philosophy, however, is their rationale and their critique. Their rationale: What sort of experience could ever have given rise to the strange notion that a human being and a crocodile or a marmoset or an emu were somehow the same? That one could read a passage in more ways than one because the words in it were also numbers? That the kinds of political regimes would have anything to do with tuning a stringed instrument? That the slow progression of the stars across the sky night by night and year by year “was” the turning of a millstone?
And, as important again, their critique: What made this idea go away? Why, if it was ever plausible, did it stop being plausible? Why, and in what manner precisely, does it linger despite this implausibility?
And should philosophy take sides on this question?