Archetypes invite us into non-defined spaces
The role of archetypes is to invite us to engage with the complexity of reality without easy definitions and imposed structures. They present to us the ambiguous nature of life which we try to simplify into convention to render it understandable and less fearful to us. However, in the archetypal world, this could mean we live in an unreal conceptualisation of reality. Indian philosophy defines this as ‘maya’, our tendency to impose wishful thinking on material reality including by ignoring aspects of it that baffle us and evade definition.
One of my favourite archetypes in this context is Siva. He is represented as dwelling in a cemetery amidst the burning pyres of cremated bodies. Rather than being adorned with beautiful jewellery, he paints himself with the ashes of the end of life and ornaments himself with snakes. In every way he suggests a space that is outside social structures. He challenges us to embrace all of reality without dichotomies of good and bad, beautiful and repulsive and even life and death. To be in the Siva space is to find the courage to question the structures we use to find comfort and safety and to examine whether these actually serve us best in understanding the nature of reality and life. As a sensuous ascetic, he recognises the power of our sensuality to bring us to embodied engagement with life. This is one of my favourite aspects of Siva—as the deity of dance, he centralises the role of non verbal expression, specifically dance, as the way of being in, shaping and transforming our reality.
In a different way, Krishna as the archetype of love, also invites contemplation about love that is not necessarily sanctioned by social and domestic structures such as marriage. In Krishna’s love for Radha, we see many of our tropes around love subverted—Radha is married and older than Krishna, there is no permanence promised in their relationship, the yearning and separation aspects of the relationship are what evoke the most beautiful sentiments and Krishna has no reservations about expressing his deep vulnerability in his yearning for Radha.
I would suggest that our revered social conventions are usually challenged in the archetypal world. Specifically in Indian philosophy, while the social aspects emphasise abiding by social conventions, the archetypal spaces present life as far more complex and beyond the capacity of convention to fully embrace and to service.
The loss of symbolic and archetypal spaces goes hand in hand with the movement towards linear, verbalised modes of understanding and describing our reality. Archetypal spaces facilitate the interlinking of the non material (‘consciousness realms’) and the material realities. Today we value the rational discourses of economics and the sciences and reject all other ways of understanding reality as without evidence. What I suggest is that all of these assertions are born of certain times and cultural dominations. And therefore are no more or less right than other ways of describing reality.
Siva and Krishna remind us that simplifying the richness of life may not serve us if we want to fully experience the many dimensions of reality.