Depth Perception: Deciphering Hindu Iconography
Hindu culture is replete with fascinating myths and icons. In this article, I attempt to decipher the mysterious icon of the "third eye" which, in Hindu culture, is symbolically worn by Hindus as a mark on the forehead. How does Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective created by author Conan Doyle figure into the equation? Find out by reading below!
The iconography of the Hindu culture and religion can be pretty bizarre and terrifying. Having grown up in India, I have found parts of it to be downright confusing, personally. Take, for example, the concept of the "third eye." In Hinduism, supposedly, the "third eye" is considered to be a symbol of clairvoyance, enlightenment or a higher level of consciousness or awareness. In the Vedic Indian tradition, ascetics were supposed to spend years of solitude in the wilderness meditating in silence, until they achieved this so-called "heightened consciousness" or "heightened awareness." In fact, some scholars read this as referring to the "mind-expanding" or "mind-altering" effect of hallucinogens and narcotics such as soma, whose use is referred to in the Hindu text, the Rig Veda.
In the Hindu tradition, as a matter of fact, many devoted Hindus wear a mark on the forehead called a tilak to symbolize the "third eye"-and this is especially true of weatherbeaten Hindu ascetics, who wear an especially pronounced tilak on the forehead. Here is an image of actor Harrison Ford wearing a tilak on his forehead in the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a film which, incidentally, distorts Indian culture to the point of caricaturing, parodying and demonizing it pretty severely.
Now these interpretations of the concept of the "third eye" may well be true-I don't consider myself to be a scholar of Sanskrit texts or an expert on the Hindu tradition. I guess my understanding of the culture and tradition of my homeland is, in that sense, pretty limited and superficial. Having been educated primarily in the western tradition, I guess my thinking is far more pragmatic. I personally see that as a good thing in some ways because it enables me to view the iconography of the culture with a more holistic, dispassionate eye rather than get lost in its symbolism, which is only too easy to do. This can lead to confusion and misinterpretation and even, ultimately, to confused hostility towards the culture and tradition.
So thinking about it pragmatically, what does the iconography of the "third eye" refer to? I was reflecting on this concept recently, along with the concept of the illusory and transient nature of reality as described in the epic poem, the Mahabharata, with an eye towards demythologizing and clarifying these ideas so as to try to get to the core of what they represent.
Then it occurred to me that in his epic poem, the Odyssey, Homer relates a sequence wherein Odysseus (or Ulysses, in Latin) lands upon an island in the course of his voyages and is taken hostage, along with many of his men, by a gigantic cannibalistic Cyclops named Polyphemus. They are only able to escape with their lives secretly by blinding the one-eyed creature-which is to say, rendering the creature completely blind, whereas previously, its vision was already pretty limited, as it had only one eye.
So it got me thinking-what was Homer talking about here, in the metaphorical language of mythology? What does it mean to have only one eye as opposed to two eyes? The answer is pretty obvious when you think about it-if you have only one eye, you have no depth perception. You see the world as flat and two-dimensional. We have depth perception because we have stereoscopic vision-two eyes. It is the difference between watching a movie on a flat screen and watching the same movie in 3D-a huge difference. So, with no eyes, we are completely blind and cannot see the world at all. With one eye, we see the world as two-dimensional. With a second eye, we can perceive three dimensions-we have depth perception.
So what about the metaphorical, figurative "third eye" of Hindu mythology? If we go strictly by the logic of progression, it must mean being able to see the world as four-dimensional-to being able to discern the fourth dimension, i.e. time-to be able to view the space-time continuum as a continuum.
Basically, it seems to me to refer to foresight and insight-not necessarily to clairvoyance but, rather, to the ability to see through and beyond the illusory surfaces of the world-to see beyond superficiality-and to discern hidden trends and deeper meaning. So maybe we're not talking about something as esoteric as clairvoyance or mysticism so much as a heightened ability for interpretive, deductive reasoning-to be able to discern clues and patterns in the world around us and, thereby, to extrapolate into the future and see beyond the immediacy of present experience (which is inherently illusory and transient).
In A. Conan Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is described as having an almost intuitive ability to arrive instantaneously at deductions based on the evidence presented to him-viewing a set of clues holistically and almost instantaneously arriving at a conclusion. His abilities are described as being almost clairvoyant or supernatural to the casual observer. In one sequence in the novel, Dr. Watson reads a newspaper article written, unknown to him, by Sherlock Holmes:
The writer claimed by a momentary expression, a twitch of a muscle or a glance of an eye, to fathom a man's inmost thoughts. Deceit, according to him, was an impossibility in the case of one trained to observation and analysis. His conclusions were as infallible as so many propositions of Euclid. So startling would his results appear to the uninitiated that until they learned the processes by which he had arrived at them they might well consider him as a necromancer. "From a drop of water," said the writer, "a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it.
In the Rudolph Valentino film, The Young Rajah, in a dramatization of the battle of Kurukshetra, the film depicts Krishna applying a mark on Arjuna's forehead, which supposedly gives Arjuna the power of "second sight." This power is carried down to his descendant, Amos Judd (Valentino's character), who carries a birthmark on his forehead and possesses the uncanny ability to see into the future-to foresee events. This ties in neatly with Hindu tradition-the mark or "tilak" on the forehead worn by Hindus as a symbol or iconic representation of the mysterious "third eye."
But far from the esoteric, mystical connotations of this iconography, I think it is far more valuable and informative to think of this as representing simple foresight-being a visionary thinker-being able to see beyond surfaces and superficiality and discern hidden meaning from clues through interpretive, deductive reasoning. I think it makes much more sense, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, to interpret this iconography as such, especially in the context of the epic poem, the Mahabharata. Perhaps if more people in our world had foresight and the ability to see beyond surfaces and the immediate present, our world might be a happier place to live in and we might be wiser as individuals and collectively.
Perhaps this ability could be developed through training and exercise until it achieved the level of clarity and sophistication demonstrated by Sherlock Holmes in the literary works by Conan Doyle-approaching a level that, to the untutored eye, might appear to be mystical clairvoyance.
Horizon Cybermedia aims, as part of our agenda, to decipher and demythologize arcane ideas and iconography in order to make them comprehensible and pragmatic (though running the risk of oversimplification), in an attempt to promote understanding, acceptance and tolerance between cultures and populations. Hopefully, our efforts will yield positive results! Meanwhile, check out our website, http://www.explorationtheseries.com for our ongoing film series, Exploration with Uday Gunjikar. The current episode takes the viewer to the Wine Country of Sonoma, CA and future episodes will visit Calcutta, India and other locations worldwide!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Uday Gunjikar is the founder and CEO of Horizon Cybermedia, a new company dedicated to the production and delivery of high quality digital media content. Horizon Cybermedia owns and operates the website http://www.explorationtheseries.com, featuring the film series Exploration with Uday Gunjikar. Uday Gunjikar also operates and regularly contributes to the affiliated weblog, Horizon CyberBlog.