Breathe in… Sun: Let your lungs expand/Feel the radiance/Look up to the sky: Surya Namaskar: Mithra-Ra-Sol Invictus. The idea for this piece came to me in a vision while I was meditating on the nature of the Sun…Years back my comrade and friend Reg and I were having a debate on the origin of religious thought and we were going through the various philosophical arguments concerning the rise and evolution of religion.
What can be called the Historical Theory: All persons and stories in religion and mythology were factual events and the legends concerning them were filled with additions and fantastical embellishments. For example the High God Odin of Norse mythology was actually a great warrior king of northern Europe in pre-historic times and the pantheon of odinist gods—Freya, Thor, etc.—were members of his court. The Allegorical-metaphysical Theory: All of the ancient myths of all religions are allegorical and the stories contained within them are symbolic. One who follows this theory might suggest that the stories of dying and rising figures such as Jesus, Osiris and Mithra are not meant to be taken literally—these saviors and gods who died and were reborn are symbolic of the eternal cycles of nature and rebirth or perhaps the inevitability of the suffering in Life and the need to recognize this inevitability and overcome it.
There are far too many theories regarding the origins of religion to relay here, but our discussion was wide ranging. Now, you must understand that when Reg and I would hold dialectic it was battle: I’d unleash a barrage of Herculean blows with my razor-sharp logic twin chopping twin battle-axes. Reg would answer with a mighty firestorm from his syllogistic scimitars. And we’d do this for hours until we found a synthesis.
In this particular conversation he was taking a position that many Atheists and fans of dialectical materialism and economic determinism profess: the origins of religious thought can be traced back to modes of production and exchange and the evolution of religious institutions are by-products—or intentional constructs—of class antagonisms. I was taking a position that might be considered a form of psychological determinism mixed with a bit of sociological interpretation: Religion arose as mankind attempted to find plausible answers to profound questions concerning all aspects of existence; the evolution of various aspects of religious thought occurred due to syncretism and other sociological factors.
We stood by the crack between our cells and battled! Man, I miss Reg…we went through all sorts of points and counterpoints, madly referencing various writers and theories:
Reg: Do you still have the Durkheim passages we were discussing last week?
Rob: Yes, I have them over here somewhere.
Reg: Well, I would certainly appreciate it if you would be nice enough to pull them out for me, no, for us.
Rob: Hmm, quite clever. I’ll do that but I already know where you’re attempting to go with this. Now, while I do that would you, my dear sir, be so kind as to pull out the Jung book and have your trusty bookmark handy? Or two, perhaps? And see if you can avoid seig heil-ing and goose-stepping over to your stack of books and curb your incessant cravings to grasp at your Mao and Stalin.
Reg: You know damned well I don’t have any Mao or Stalin over here and have absolutely no use for them and there was no “goose-stepping” or seig heil-ing” in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China anyway. But, yes, I’ll grab your precious Jung.
Rob: Good and really, Stalinist salutes, seig heils, Maoist Red Purge Two-steps—it’s all the same. You’re acting like a dogmatic Marxist with your incessant insistence on economic determinism so I just assumed…
Reg: Yes, well, I’ve been dealing with your unfounded assumptions for hours, now so another one isn’t surprising. And I believe that you have been listening too many right-wing talk shows or something—acting as if all religious belief has never been associated with any form of oppression.
…So on and on [it] went! We’d throw sarcastic arrows at each other all the time during debate but it was always done with love and respect and our conversations were always productive because we both understood that we were very fallible individuals with much to learn. At one point we attempted to take our minds back to ancient times:
Rob: Let me illustrate a point. Let’s get up in the window. We’re going back to ancient Egypt. We’re sitting on the Nile, or we’re in Babylon on the Euphrates, on the Ganges or wherever. (We hopped up on our bunks and looked out our windows.)
Reg: Man! Check that out!
Rob: Wow, the sky is beautiful!
…we looked out at a beautiful almost otherworldly sky, one of the most beautiful skies I had ever seen. The sun was setting, its rays slowly departing from the horizon, highlighting the soft blues and light grays of the clouds. We continued on with our discussion attempting to discern how ancient man developed religion. Long story short: We basically agreed that religious thought arose as mankind’s cognitive capabilities increased and people searched for meaning in the seemingly unexplainable. But, indeed certain religious institutions have been tools of indoctrination and oppression…
As I was meditating on the nature of the Sun this conversation came back to me. At the time Reg was on deathwatch with an execution date. (He was executed on October 27, 2009.) In one of the last letters Reg wrote me he drew a little sketch of the Sun and spoke of the Sun as a symbol of the light of knowledge.
Some Gurus have interpreted passages from the Upanishads as saying that the Sun continuously vibrates the Sacred Om and there are Yogic teachings that instruct one to align oneself with the power of Surya, the Sun, when chanting Om. I did this and had a vision of a swirling mandala with many flames reaching out across the vast expanse of Humanity, touching every corner of the Earth, warming the Heart of Humanity with its illuminating rays.
The Image: Sometimes, my visions are crystal clear, other times I may only visualize waves of rushing colors. This mandala image was indistinct, more of a feeling, so I looked through various depictions of sacred images of the Sun from numerous cultures and historical periods. This image is actually—although I changed it a bit—from an ancient engraving of Mithra, the Persian Sun god.
The Canvas. An artist’s canvas, a blank canvas, can be seen as an invitation for creation—as a demand to bring forth a construct of the mind and make a statement. However a canvas can also be a powerful statement. I had this world map for about 7 years. It has been a tool of education as well as an implement of battle.
Any act of creation in affirmation of Life in this environment is a righteous act, an act of rebellion against oppression. This map has been an actual material statement of protest. Years ago there was a particularly sadistic high-ranking officer who came to work here on Texas death row. He was an absolute maniac who was despised by inmates and officers alike. He attempted to implement a vast array of extremely oppressive and nonsensical new policies.
For probably 100 years prisoners have kept photographs and calendars on their walls. Well, this ranking officer decided that he wanted to forbid death row inmates from having anything on their walls. This change was just one small aspect of his sadistic reign, which included a major increase in inmate assaults by staff and increased gassings and just an overall new campaign of oppression.
A small group of us who refused to simply stand by in the face of injustice began our own campaign, which involved conducting non-violent sit-ins and other organizing/protest activity. Non-cooperation has historically been a very effective form of protest. Some examples of this are when the Danish refused to aid the Nazis during World War II while under occupation (effectively thwarting some of the Nazi war efforts), the U.S. Civil Rights movement and India’s mass civil disobedience against British occupation to name a few.
We were being gassed and dragged back to our cells after sit-ins, filing complaints, having teach-ins and generally refusing to “obey” the ridiculous new “rules.” I put this huge map on my wall. The ranking officer was considering the C.O's to do extremely harsh shakedowns in order to try to break us. See all of the various rips in the map? They are there from when officers would come in my cell for shakedowns and rip my map down. The large fist-sized missing piece down at the bottom is from a time, a particular shakedown, when a rather unrestrained officer went on a rampage and grabbed my map in one clenched fist and tried to tear it down but only tore that piece off at first. They tried to take my map and throw it away many times and I literally had to fight to get it back.
Media. Although this piece looks like it’s done in black paint it’s actually all ink; I only used a TDCJ-issued ballpoint pen because that’s all I had at the time. Well, I used probably 10 pens over about 2 months of working on the piece.
Study. While vibing with this piece I studied the symbolism of the Sun within various religious and cultural traditions. I read up on various Sun gods such as Mithra, Sol Invictus, Ra, Ba’al. I also vibed on some poetry about the Sun, and delved off into a bit of astronomy.
Yoga. As I said, the original idea for this piece came to me in a meditative vision. I practice Yoga daily but in order to connect more deeply with this piece I engaged in some particular Yogic exercises. Of course, as one can imagine, I did many Salute To the Sun (Surya Namaskar) asanas as well as the Sun Sequence (Suryasana), along with my other daily Yoga practices.
I finished working on the piece on a Thursday. The next three days after coming back from the shower early in the morning, I wrapped the map around my body and chanted Om and a Sanskrit mantra honoring the Sun. I did this, allowing my Consciousness to merge with the Energy emanating from the Sun. I also fasted these three days.
At one point I delved so deeply into meditation that for the first time I did the Yogic Seal while in Siddhasana (master pose) very comfortably and for a long period of time. On Sunday, a day named in honor of the Sun, I finished my three-day meditative practice, thus sealing and completing the Art project Surya Namaskar: Mithra-Ra-Sol-Invictus