“Neither what is nor what is not, but only Shiva”: My encounter with the divinely other

[photo credit: David Martínez]

My first trip to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco turned into a sojourn the moment I encountered the 10th century face of Shiva. Demonstrating a power beyond the life and death of mortal creatures, this four-faced lingam evoked in my mind an ancient reverence for the earth’s four directions, from where the seasons, animals, and spirits keep their homes, and within which humankind fulfills its journey in this life. The mind of the divine, the Creator, who is also the Destroyer, of Life comprehends the eternal cycle of birth-decay-death-and-rejuvenation. Such beliefs, the foundation of all existence, which is the inspiration for song, prayer, dance, and ceremony, have metamorphosed across time and space as humans have migrated and adapted into an infinite array of environments, in which people have had to learn how to live in balance with nature. In the case of India, such beliefs and customs became known as “Sanatana Dharma, which means eternal faith, or the eternal way things are (truth).” What I experienced, in turn, as I meandered through the Asian Art Museum’s galleries was a stream of consciousness from which emerged a spectrum of sacred images, from India to China to Japan, segueing into Thailand, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Afghanistan, even reaching into the island Pacific. What I ultimately witnessed in these works was that each land, language, and people was following the path given them from their Creator, which they pursued for the sake of their well-being in a world where they, like all humans, would perish in the end.

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