Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Gospel of Thomas and the Everlasting Spring

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

We're currently engaged in an examination of some of the ancient texts found buried at the base of the Jabal al-Tarif near Nag Hammadi in Egypt, for evidence of teachings which resonate with the teachings conveyed by other Star Myths around the world.

The previous post examined the Gospel of Thomas, found in Nag Hammadi codex 2, and argued that it is using a powerful esoteric metaphor to teach us that we are beings composed of two natures, that we are like a "set of twins," but contained within one being. We have our human, incarnate, doubting side -- but one privileged with the gift of direct access to and intimate communication with the divine, the Christ within, who declares in another manuscript contained in Nag Hammadi codex 2 that Thomas is indeed his twin, his true companion, and the one who will be called his brother.

In section 13 of the Gospel of Thomas, we find the following exchange:
Jesus said to his disciples, "Compare me to something and tell me what I am like."
Simon Peter said to him, "You are like a just messenger."
Matthew said to him, "You are like a wise philosopher."
Thomas said to him, "Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like."
Jesus said, "I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the spring that I have tended."
And he took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends they asked him, "What did Jesus say to you?"
Thomas said to them, "If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you." [link to this translation].
This passage is noteworthy for many reasons.

First, it is very clearly a parallel to an episode found in the canonical gospels (those which, unlike those texts buried at Nag Hammadi, were included in the "approved list" of texts that eventually came to be called the "New Testament"): specifically, the mountaintop experience recounted in Matthew 16, Mark 8 and Luke 9, in which Jesus asks "Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am?" and then "But whom say ye that I am?" 

In the versions included in the canonical gospels, it is Simon Peter who gives an answer that Jesus approves. In this version, it is Thomas -- and the answer that Thomas gives is different from that given by Peter in the canonical gospels. Thomas here says, in answer to the question, that his mouth is "utterly unable to say" what Jesus is like.

This answer is actually very profound, in that it is expressing the idea that the one with whom Thomas is conversing cannot be defined, cannot be labeled, cannot be delineated: he is utterly unable to be framed or contained by the faculty of language. This answer immediately points to the previous discussion in the posts: "Self, the senses and the mind," in which a distinction is made between the mind (with its endless attempts to define and describe and discriminate and delineate) and the infinite and ineffable Supreme Source which is behind and above mind, and of which Sri B. K. S. Iyengar, in commenting upon the teaching of the Vedas upon this subject, declares:
The mind cannot find words to describe the state and the tongue fails to utter them. Comparing the experience of samadhi with other experiences, the sages say: 'Neti! Neti!' -- 'It is not this! It is not this!' The state can only be expressed by profound silence. The yogi has departed from the material world and is merged with the Eternal. There is then no duality between the knower and the known for they are merged like camphor and flame. Light on Yoga, 52.
Note how well the above statement reflects the sentiment dramatized in the Thomas Gospel. Thomas declares that he can only say, "I am unable to say!" In other words, he must declare "Neti! Neti!" like the sages described by B. K. S. Iyengar and the teachings of ancient India. 

Further, in the description of Sri Iyengar, we see the assertion that there is in fact a merging of the yogi with the Eternal: there is no duality between the two; they merge like camphor and flame. The previous post makes the argument that the Nag Hammadi texts express this same idea by declaring that Thomas and the one who is ineffable, who cannot be described, are in fact twins. They are, in some mysterious sense, merged. There is no duality between them. In the words of the Hebrew scriptures in the book of Proverbs, the heavenly friend is the one who "sticketh closer than a brother" (Proverbs 18: 24).

In other words, the Nag Hammadi text of the Thomas Gospel is trying to convey to us that in our incarnate condition we are like Thomas: we are intimately connected to the infinite, the ineffable, the Eternal -- so closely that we are "twinned;" we are "merged like camphor and flame." 

And, this one with whom we are so close is in fact the un-namable, the undefinable: the Ultimate. In the Bhagavad Gita, this is expressed by Arjuna's divine companion and confidant, the Lord Krishna, who declares that: "The entire universe is pervaded by me" (section 9),  "I am the origin of all. Everything emanates from me. [. . .] There is no end of my divine manifestations" (section 10). Krishna then displays his ultimate form, and shows Arjuna that his divine companion is indeed unbounded, unlimited, unable to be described with words, endless and infinite.

The same is declared in the Hymn to Durga which is found in the Mahabharata immediately prior to the Bhagavad Gita, in which the goddess Durga is also declared to be "identical with Brahman [. . .] the unconsciousness [. . .] the beauty of all creatures [. . .]" (Book I, section 23). The fact that she appears to Arjuna immediately upon his meditation upon her and his hymn of praise to her indicates the same teaching that we have been exploring above: there is so little distance between the human being and the deity that they are as close as the camphor and the flame, they are closer than even the closest of brothers, they are twinned: the mortal with the immortal (like Castor and Pollux).

After Thomas declares that his mouth is utterly unable to say what the divine one is like, Jesus then declares to him that: 1) Jesus is not his teacher, and 2) that Thomas has drunk from the spring which Jesus has tended, and it is this spring which has made Thomas drunk.

This aspect of the passage is also extremely noteworthy. Thomas began his "confession" by saying "Teacher," but Jesus in a sense rebukes him and says "I am not your teacher." This might be interpreted as telling us that he is not separate from Thomas: there is not an external one to whom Thomas must look for guidance. The divine is within Thomas himself.

This interpretation might be seen as comporting very well with the declaration of Paul in the epistle to the Galatians, in chapter 1 and verse 16, in which Paul can be interpreted as saying that when God revealed the Christ in him, he did not confer with any teacher. 

This interpretation is strengthened by the next metaphor, in which Jesus declares that Thomas has obtained this insight because Thomas has drunk from the spring which Jesus has tended. In other words, according to this passage in the Nag Hammadi text, Jesus is here declaring that his role is as the one who tends to the spring (almost like a barista who tends to the coffee that is given to those who come looking for it). 

This declaration is very interesting in light of the passage in the canonical gospel of John describing the episode of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (at Jacob's well, in fact): Jesus tells her that he has living water that one can have and never thirst again, and then explains that this living water is within her. In verse 14 of John 4, Jesus says that this water can be in anyone a well of living water (unending water, unlimited water), "springing up into everlasting life." In other words, he is tending a spring which is infinite in nature, but which is available to each person internally

Based on this declaration found in John 4:14, and the declaration found here in the Thomas Gospel section 13 that Jesus is tending the spring, it does not seem too far of a stretch to conclude that the spring from which Thomas has drunk is the everlasting or infinite and Eternal spring within himself (within Thomas). Thomas is connected with the infinite, not externally but in himself.

Again, it bears repeating that this passage of ancient scripture is not intended to be understood as describing some ancient enlightened being named Thomas, who was different from ourselves. It is intended to convey to us a truth about each and every human soul who comes into this material life: we, like the "Thomas" in the text, are actually a composite being, a dual being -- a "set of twins," in which we usually identify with only the human aspect but which has a hidden or forgotten connection to the divine or the infinite or the eternal: a "divine twin," but our divine twin is not external to ourselves. 

Switching to a different metaphor, the text shows us that the divine or infinite or Eternal is already within us, like an everlasting or unending spring, from which we can drink.

In the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus declares: "When you know yourself, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty" (section 3). This parallels the metaphor discussed in the previous post regarding the Gospel of Thomas, which says we are like one who has a field but is unaware of the treasure buried within that field.

Ultimately, then, the purpose of this ancient text seems to be identical to the famous dictum of the temple at Delphi: "Know thyself." 

Note that the temple at Delphi was closed under the reign of the Emperor Theodosius, after the literalists took control of the Roman Empire, in the year AD 390 -- during the same second half of the fourth century AD in which scholars believe the Nag Hammadi texts were hidden and buried, possibly due to persecution by the ascendent literalist hierarchy.

The Gospel of Thomas is telling us that if we know the truth, we are actually connected intimately with the ultimate -- with the divine. We are, like Thomas, a twin: a twin to divinity (like Castor was a twin to Pollux). We contain within us a bubbling spring which is connected to Eternity. But, if we remain in ignorance of this fact, we are like the one who had a treasure buried in his or her own field, and never knew about that treasure.

Peter Kingsley, who writes about the ancient knowledge of this internal connection to the infinite, says that when we are disconnected from that infinite source, we become impoverished indeed -- filled with a longing we can never satisfy, and with a hollowness that drives us to chase after substitute after substitute for what we perceive to be missing. This hollowness and chasing after substitutes, not surprisingly, characterizes western civilization (because western civilization almost by definition is directly descended from those cultures that are heir to the Roman Empire which had shut down the temple at Delphi and declared heretical the texts buried at Nag Hammadi). 

As the Gospel of Thomas tells us, if we do not know this truth, this treasure, then we will live in poverty, and will in fact be that poverty (clearly describing spiritual poverty, rather than material poverty, since the rushing after substitutes which Peter Kingsley describes can in many cases produce material wealth, although without corresponding release from the spiritual hollowness).

The worst part about this situation is that the actual solution is already within our grasp: the bubbling spring is already available to each of us. It is that Tao which cannot be named, that Krishna who declares that there is no end to his manifestations, that one of whom Thomas says the mouth is utterly incapable of describing or defining.

But that is also the best part, as well.