The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe

The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe

Richard Smoley
Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2009. 214 pages, paper, $14.95.

Somewhere the Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi challenges us with the following paradox:

Atman and the world are illusion.
Only Brahman is real.
Atman and Brahman are one.

The challenge of nondualism is venerable, even perennial. It is to demonstrate a unity that underlies the apparent duality of the universe. The word demonstrate is meant to appeal to a sense of higher reason, an awakened intelligence sensitive to the difference between the manifest and unmanifest, as well as to the pivot on which both turn. Such reason is an attainment, gradual or sudden, that opens our human perception of duality to the core reality, ineffable in the vigor of its energies.

In a sweeping survey, generously presented in both idea and language, Richard Smoley stakes out a position somewhat short of nondualism. I say "somewhat short" because The Dice Game of Shiva contains a subtle vacillation between the classical locus of dualism—the Indian darshana or "view" known as Samkhya—and the more "modern" Advaita Vedanta, which espouses a distinctly nondualist viewpoint. Smoley has the good grace of leaving it to the reader to decide whether the apparent duality of mind and matter—or as he says, consciousness and experience—is ultimately true or only an aspect of one and the same dream.

The title of the book refers to the Hindu myth of Shiva and his consort Parvati. In the not yet manifest universe, the two are locked in amorous union, only to be interrupted by Narada, portrayed as a sinister yogi who entices them away with a dice game. Here is the mythomeme of difference. Separation is differential manifestation, since it embodies a subtle negation of primordial unity into a one and an other.

Smoley acknowledges the difficulty in speaking a state before difference. As the Rig Veda puts it:

Then there was neither death nor no-death
no sign of night or day.
The One breathed, breathless
though its own impulsion
and there was no Other of any kind.

Smoley wishes to show how Shiva, identified with Self, purusha, "I am," or consciousness, necessarily takes an other. Parvati, prakriti is the manifest universe, the object (or objects) of consciousness, which he refers to as "experience" in all its forms. In that sense, separation or differentiation is apparently built into consciousness. Smoley, like much of twentieth-century thought, tends to side with phenomenology, which maintains that consciousness is necessarily consciousness of something.

Whether it makes sense to speak of consciousness "in itself" or only in conjunction with an object is in fact only part of Smoley's concern. Another major emphasis of his work involves praxis. Here he shows a certain allegiance to Samkhya precepts, at least those espoused by the guru of the Swiss seeker Lizelle Reymond, whose teacher Sri Anirvan provides her with an outline of a course in liberation (described in her memoir To Live Within). The practice involves isolation or kaivalya, which is, as Smoley puts it, "the detachment of purusha, or primordial mind, from its experience." Purusha, or the Self, is without attributes, names, or form. The approach to it, that is, to objectless experience (or the experience of nonexperience) is through a repeated negation of what is presented, neti neti. In more contemporary terms, the bracketing of experienced reality leads one to the transcendental Ego, a residuum of the "I am."

A chief virtue of The Dice Game is the breadth of Smoley's thought. He is equally comfortable in the mainstream of Western metaphysics (Parmenides, Plato, Kant, Schopenhauer, down to the contemporary Daniel Dennett) and the Indian darshanas. The Indian philosopher Shankara makes an appearance in a mention of Advaita Vedanta. There are frequent appeals to Ramana Maharshi as well as to Tibetan sages. Perhaps the riddle of two as one finds a repetition in whatever world wisdom tradition one seeks. Yet in a not too disguised way, the major motif lies closer to home, in Christianity. This should come as no surprise: Smoley is the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition. There he argues for an identity of atman, rigpa, or Buddha nature, with God. God then would be the One without qualities, like Eckhart's Gottheit, so destitute that he is altogether without appearance, since he has given away even his divine being.

The Dice Game is much more than the sum of its parts. Driven by the paradox, Smoley's thought follows a winding itinerary that, as it turns out, has no single destination. In its open acceptance of what it comes across—spiritual anguish, the contemporary problem of community, or the place of psychoanalysis in religion—it communicates the adventure of the undertaking. In the very multiplicity of its pathways lies the main challenge for the reader: to maintain a supple receptivity that alone may be able to discern a unitary heartbeat within the body of duality.

Smoley's own inner predilections are disclosed in an anecdotal prologue and help orient the task of reading. A classicist by academic training, he fell under the influence first of the Kabbalah, then of the teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff. The latter functions as a touchstone to his thinking and has enabled him to resolve a cluster of difficult issues.

The Dice Game contains no solution to the problems it raises, no panacea for spiritual illness. It does, however, supply a much-needed tonic for a contemporary individual's search for reality. It does not cater to the weak-minded, but offers hope for those who are willing to think the issues through to the end. This is very good news for religion. Smoley draws together several strands of thought when he says: "If religion is to continue as anything more than a mere simulacrum, it must be guided by those who are willing to 'go in themselves,' by those who are at least comparatively awake, rather than by those who are merely well trained in theological jargon." This is a call to which all motivated readers must respond.

David Appelbaum

The reviewer is professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at New Paltz and former editor of Parabola.