The Cave

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

 Caverns measureless to man run back through his vast memory, through his wistful heart, through the pulse therein. Inner chambers open out and conceal a world from the void without. Earthen corridors echo back through their own genesis to a sea of no beginning and no end. Enclosing, concealing, containing: the cave leads away from sunlight into darkness and presses in upon the mind the dripping weight of its surround. It is an avenue leading to death and rebirth, to the confrontation of the primitive threshold over which form emerged from chaos. But it is fearfully dark and filled with the dampness of dissolution and incipient life. One can become lost there, with all sense of direction mockingly echoed back by haunting telluric voices, confused and convoluted by side tunnels and caverns with their own networks of further corridors seeping and echoing in the gloom. But if one knows their bearings, the cave contains the mystery of the world and the key to what lies beyond.

 Porphyry called the cave "a symbol of the universe". Indeed, it is often identified with the world-centre, the heart of all and the meeting-place of gods and men. The Zuni hold that the creation of man took place at this Centre of the World. They call it the first Cave-womb, belonging to Awitelin Tsita, the 'Fourfold containing Mother-Earth', in whose spiritual and material body lie three subsequent caves or worlds through which mankind slowly evolves. In the fourth such world the light is like that of dawn, and men begin to develop their perceptions and intellect before emerging into the 'world of disseminated light'. Similarly, the Nahuati of Mexico believed that theirs and six other races could trace their origins to seven caves which may have been the same as those to which the Mayan brothers set out in search of light. They found them at Tulan-Zuiva and received from them a deity for each of their tribal clans. Some say that the seven caves are linked esoterically with the Seven Cities of Cibola, and in occult tradition they are understood to represent "the seven centres, or zones, upon which the seven primitive groups of the first Root-race were born".

 Plato refers to the cave in his allegory as the world in its obscurity and illusion. If one could see the dissolution of the world through the deluge as the negation of this illusion, then the cave at Hieropolis which swallowed up Deucalion's flood was an agent of obscurity serving to contain and conceal. There is an interesting Armenian myth whose hero lives with his horse as captives in the cave called Zympzymps. There in its fastness he turns the wheel of fate and thence will he appear at the end of the world. The suggestion is that within the cave the hero monitors the illusive effects of the world for a cycle, which seems to lend to the symbol of the cave a fascinatingly ambivalent character. It both limits and obscures as well as contains at its heart the timeless centre of eternal causation.

 To fuse these contrary aspects of the symbol requires seeing simultaneously from within without and from without within. Most human beings find this mode of thinking alien to their terrestrial experience, and so they see the cave either as an emerging place or as the place of the dead. Charon waits at many entrances to the underworld in Greece. His tall and faceless form beckons at Tainaron, Ephyra and Troizen, where the waters flow inward from the mouth of the caves to the gloomy depths below. Just so did the libations flow along the winding grooves of the Inca sun temple into the subterranean clefts of the caves below, where rock-carved altars and thrones marked the funeral rites performed as souls returned to the earth. All over the world there are similar caves, though few are as elaborately appointed. At Le Moustier and the Dordogne in southern France, vaults containing dozens of corpses have been discovered. In the Amazon basin great underground cave cities for the dead exist, with chambers containing urns in which red-painted skeletons squat. Though such caves are often associated etymologically with Hades, such as the German Hohle (cave) and Holle (hell), it is highly likely that these objective 'underworlds' are representations of a return to the matrix whence human beings emerged.

Would I might go, like Kodova's daughter
To seek the spirits beyond the water.
To go I were fain,
And behold, and return again.

Bechuana Poem

 Pursuing an animal into a cave, a young African girl stopped short at the threshold of the Land of the Dead and cried out this poignant phrase. More than a mere entrance to the underworld, she and her people saw the cave as a place of the spirits from which one could return again. Her longing to go there suggests the great benefit of making the journey, but her halting at the threshold shows the fearsome nature of the undertaking. This relates to the notion of the cave as the womb of Mother Earth, a place of mystery, increase and renewal, as well as pointing to the Land of the Dead. Again the ambivalence of the symbol intrigues us, and we are reminded of the ancient assertion that "dying gods and saviours are born in caves". It is said that Christ was born in an underground stable and, at his crucifixion, was interred within a cave. The Holy Land is filled with caves, including the praying places of David and Solomon and that at Mount Carmel in which Pythagoras resided before he returned westwards.

 Such caves were arenas where the gods came, like Mayum who was the manifested messenger of the Great Spirit amongst the Cheyenne. He showed himself in a sacred cave hidden in the Black Hills to which representatives of all the tribes came for instruction. Mutsoyef of the Cheyenne received the Teachings of the Four Sacred Arrows there and conveyed them to his tribe, who came to regard them as the spiritual guide for every aspect of life. The cave is a place of initiation. It is also a symbol of the sepulchre or the underworld wherein death takes place prior to rebirth and illumination. It is called the place of the heart. Both the cave and the heart are symbols of the feminine downward-pointing triangle as opposed to the mountain, which is the masculine upward-pointing triangle. The cave hidden within the mountain lies at the axis-point of the two cosmic forces. It is, therefore, a centre which in itself combines the within without and without within modes. In her marvellous description of ancient Hindu caves, H.P. Blavatsky gave an account of such mysterious places in the Sahyadra Range of Western India. Hindus held, she wrote, that somewhere in the neighbourhood of this hill there exists a secret entrance to vast underground halls, in fact, a whole subterranean palace, and that there still exist people who possess the secret of the interior abode. A holy hermit, yogin and magician who has inhabited this underground for many a century imparted its secret to Shivaji, the famous leader of the Maratha armies. Like Tannhauser in Wagner's opera, the unconquerable hero spent seven years of his youth in this mysterious abode. It was there that he acquired his extraordinary strength and courage.

 Such a cave is a secret place whose entrance is hidden from the eyes of the profane by a labyrinth, a dangerous pass or a forbidding passage often guarded by poisonous serpents or a monster. The remaining peoples of earlier Races enter such caves with great care and paint strange figures of supernatural powers on their walls, like the Wandjina figure of Arnhem Land in northern Australia. They guard the initiation rituals that take place therein, whilst other secret designs instruct the novitiates in the esoteric myths of the tribe. Where cave paintings are believed to have magical powers, old men who can chant the correct incantations at the appropriate season and time can draw them forth to bring rain or increase the supply of food. According to the Hebrews, Moses was initiated in a cave at Hor-eb-the by a Midianite priest called Jethro, who evidently possessed at least some of the arcane knowledge of the Egyptians. The hierophants themselves, in a flat land with few natural caves near the river Nile, conducted initiations in cave-like chambers deep within the vastness of pyramidal structures reminiscent of mountains.

 Owing to the close resemblance between the upward-pointing triangle of the pyramid and that of a mountain, some archaeologists have thought that the idea of the cave chamber in the pyramid came originally from the ancient traditions of a more mountainous India, where cave temples have been known to abound for millennia. Under the tutelage of the hierophant-priests, the Egyptian novitiate was taken inside this deep chamber wherein he was laid in a sepulchre and plunged into a deep sleep. He remained thus for three days and nights, during which his spirit communed with the gods and descended into Hades before returning to be initiated into full wakefulness by the first ray of the fourth day's sun.

 From the incarnated Rishis of the Third Root Race the knowledge of sacred architecture was passed down to the ancients who built the pyramids and cave temples. It is said that these were initiated Priest-Architects who instructed their pupils to build in the bosom of the earth. They hollowed the rocks out for centuries, according to the Puranas, planning on so grand a scale that no modern architect has been able to conceive anything equal to it. The main temple in the Karla Caves northeast of Bombay illustrates this in one hundred and twenty-four-foot aisles flanked by columns with octagonal shafts and capitals magnificently sculpted to represent two kneeling elephants surmounted by gods or goddesses. The nave has a high cupola-shaped roof and beyond it lie an outer and inner altar once used by ancient priests. Over it is a great umbrella-shaped roof carved out of the living rock and meant to protect the Holy of Holies within. The cave temples at Ajanta were hidden for hundreds of years from the eyes of the profane until accidentally rediscovered by a British soldier. The Buddhist injunction against painting images of the Master had been forgotten and exuberant portrayals of him were executed in several of the caves. There is a marvellous primitive resilience in the brushwork, and the faces and figures are rendered with icon-like clarity, exuding a lavish and joyous power. As at the caves of Ellora and Nasik, Hindu and Jain artistry coexist with what is commonly believed to be older Buddhist works. At Ajanta there are sumptuous palace scenes, flying apsaras and lotus-eyed Bodhisattvas in vivid pigments on the walls, columns and doorways, whilst Ellora's beauty lies solely in the power of its sculpted living rock. Perhaps there is no greater wonder on earth than the awesome Kailas Temple there which, symbolizing the cosmos with all its myriad levels of being, is liberated from the vast rocky universe that surrounds it.

The  Nasik caves are carved into the Pandu-Lena Mountains, whose name indicates a persistent folk belief that all such Cyclopean structures were the work of the Pandavas. They were wrought by several generations and more than one sect', a Sanskrit inscription on a portion of the later work pointing to a date of 453 B.C. speaks of the Buddha and of Buddhist monasteries. The first caves, two hundred and fifty feet from the base of the conical-shaped hill, are filled with Buddhist, Jain and Shaivite iconography as well as a large statue of the elder brother of the Pandavas, Yudhishthira. Some European archaeologists have shown reluctance to credit the artistic excellence of the Indian cave temples with more than a very occasional antiquity extending beyond the Christian era. They contended that the great cave at Elephanta was basically of the same style as that at Karla and therefore of the same date. H.P. Blavatsky asserts, however, that "whereas at Karli everything is built and carved after a carefully thought out plan, at Elephanta it seems as if thousands of different hands had wrought at various times, each following its own idea and fashioning after its own plan". She claims that Elephanta is much older, "dating from the epoch immediately following the 'Great War', Mahabharata".

Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,
Where the winds are all asleep.

 Some of the sacred caves in India are chaityas, basically like a cathedral or assembly wherein divine ritual was held and the stupa or dagoba is housed. Others are viharas or monasteries possessing small cells and general halls for devotions. At Ajanta there are twenty-four viharas and five chaityas, whilst Ellora possesses eleven viharas and one cathedral where laymen could worship. In the viharas monks lived in cells carved, like everything else, out of the living rock and usually fronted by a large common hall interrupted at regular intervals by rows of beautifully carved pillars. In the tiny cells there was barely enough room to enter and to sit or lie down upon the stone shelf that served as a bed. There were no other shelves or benches and only the lintelled doorway gave light dimly transferred through the pillars from the mouth of the cave beyond. The monks, rising with the dawn, looked out to catch their first glimpse of the immense arid hills that stretch out across the valley below and make up this peripheral extension of the great Deccan plateau. They must have experienced a sense of emerging from the depths of the antique living cave of the heart to look upon a primordial sketch of the world that was to come.

 At Rajgir is the Pippala Cave in which the Buddha sat to meditate after his noonday meal. Rajgir was the capital of Magadha and the residence of Bimbisara, during whose reign the Buddha obtained enlightenment. It was during the eighth year of Bimbisara's successor, Ajatasatru, that the Buddha entered Nirvana (418 B.C.), and many centuries later Rajgir itself was abandoned, leaving only a few caves in the hills that had looked down upon it. One of these was a natural cave known as the House of Devadatta (the Buddha's persistent enemy), close to the old city site. About three miles northeast is the group on the Gridhrakuta Hills where the Buddha and his companion, Ananda, meditated. A famous Chinese pilgrim by the name of Hsuan-Tsang (seventh century A.D.) described the picturesque mountain as the loftiest surrounding the town (a new town having been built on the ancient site). He and his companion, Fa-hsien) burnt incense in the cave at the top of the peak and they wept thinking of the bygone days when the Buddha had sat upon the very stone floor where they knelt. There are two caves there, both about ten by twelve feet of irregular shape and about fifty feet apart. One was used by the Master, the other by his faithful disciple, Ananda.

 There was no communication with the fair island by sea, but subterranean passages, known only to the chiefs, communicated with it in all directions.

The Secret Doctrine, ii 220

 Beyond the Hindu Kush Mountains in Central Asia where the ancient city of Djuljul stood, there is a valley surrounded by caves which had been the viharas of thousands of Buddhist monks. Beneath such lamaseries are deeper caves and corridors leading often to secret libraries containing priceless records of the 'Fair Island' and its Teaching. In the solitary passes of the Karakoram there are several such hiding places, and even seemingly insignificant temples in hidden valleys and gorges conceal tunnels leading to subterranean galleries of enormous size. Here only Initiates could go to seek further enlightenment on the spiritual path and to find, perhaps, the corridor that might lead to an even deeper proximity to the sacred centre. Here the profound chthonic power of the primeval origin of worlds forcefully surrounded one's senses, and only the most courageous seeker would probe further. Something of this enormous power is translated into overwhelming spiritual energy on the island once called Gharapuri ('Hill of Purification') and now known as Elephanta. Out of the whole cosmos the gigantic flanks of this single rock were selected by Priest-Architects for the re-creation of the energies of the great god Shiva. Here he was depicted as Maha Yogin, Ardhanarishwara, Nataraj, Maheshamurti, Andhakasuravadhamurti and Ravananugrahamurti, to name a few of his many aspects. In these depictions the presence of the god is powerfully felt. Their carved perfection rests in dramatic contrast to the rough rock on the sides of the cave where the divine energies define themselves in a more primordial fashion and rightly so, for "the sculptures are only a realization of those other continuous vibrations which are running through the whole changing universe".

 Inside, the cavern is very large and dimly lit with a mysterious light that moves in and out of the massive pillars. The pillars and enormous reliefs, scooped and carved out of the living rock, slowly take shape before the eyes. In the Vishnu Dharmattaram Purana an edict states that figures like this should be "endowed with life as if breathing". Indeed, the life seems to come from the stone itself, swelling outwards to the surface of the finely chiselled expressions. The native power of the labyrinthine cave with all its umbilical corridors of life-energy and its womb-like caverns of gestation are brought through the hands of initiated artists into the realm of manifest spiritual intelligence in these beautiful reliefs. There has been a magical fusion between the primordial mother's heart and the eye of enlightened ideation. The result is captured in the sublime faces of the Maheshamurti and the androgynous ideal embodied in Ardhanarishwara.

 Caves have great power and are often the abode of oracles, yogis and mystics. It is taught that "the caves of the Rishis, the abodes of Tiresias and the Greek seers, were modelled on those of the Nagas – the Hindu King-Snakes, who dwelt in cavities of the rocks under the ground". The landmarks of these Nagas are abundantly found in India today. They are the cavernous entrances to the abodes of those who lived in Naga-dwipa, one of the seven continents of Bharata Varsha. They are ancient corridors that once housed the human dragons whose character is assigned to the Initiate-hermits living in caves. It is the shadow of these that took the form of the horrendous and insatiable dragons of legend, whose fiery breath heaved forth from caverns bestrewn with the bones of those who tried to enter and failed. This terrible dragon is the counterpart guardian at the gate, which incinerates all who frivolously or prematurely approach, whilst the Dragon of Wisdom within prepares to receive the humble conquering hero who has measured his approach and has come to know well his bearings.

 The characteristic of the cave that has to do with the primordial forces of the Mother Substance is symbolically related to the human unconscious and its hidden labyrinths of irrational power. One can become swallowed up, encircled and lost forever in its concealed complexities just as surely as one could be overwhelmed by a great astral dragon guarding its cavern-bound treasure. The flaming breath that can envelop and incinerate a person is the blinding, astral shadow of Akashic Fire. It invades and consumes through the vulnerability of the senses, whose roots are in the subconscious but which are deluded by the personal mind. They are like the twists and turns in caves which, due to the stratification and jointing of limestone, are normally at right angles. But when the subsequent variable of steep tilting and upheaval is added, the more primitive and predictable pattern of rectangularity is disguised and obscured to the point where there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the confused network of caverns and tunnels. This is precisely what happens to the senses under the idiosyncratic rulership of the personal mind. The senses themselves come to deliver twisted and confused information, and the individual becomes lost in a mayavic labyrinth wherein one is peculiarly vulnerable to the inexorable telluric forces of the vast subconscious shared by all humankind. In this state one can be swept away into the jaws of oblivion, madness and death, which may come as a welcome release.

 Before the mind can obscure and come to be ruled by misinformed senses, a pre-rational state prevails which in many ancient myths was associated with darkness and quadrupedal locomotion and which in modern science has become confused with the gross fossil evidence of early man. From an occult point of view, the earliest men were ethereal beings informed by the highest Spiritual Fathers, whilst 'cavemen' are recognized as the offspring of human and non-human ancestors who possessed only the rudiments of rational intelligence. They must have sensed the power within the great underground caverns they often inhabited, and they seemed to have felt at home there, clustering in little groups around fires and laying their spears and scrapers along hollowed stone shelves. Whilst they slept, the fires must have burnt low, faltering beneath great shadows which swallowed up their forms as though they had been absorbed into the yawning throat of the earth itself. They were at home with the primeval energy engulfing them, and their minds were like the low-burning flame barely illuminating them through the night.

 Thinking man, no matter how confused, is not in this position. He cannot recline on the dark floor of the cave and feel at ease. He is deeply awed by its silence, pierced sometimes by timeless echoes – pulse-beats of the Antique Mother, but he is also terrified. He struggles to comprehend which aspects of his being are drawn to the cave and which cling to the guidelines of the sunlit world outside. He wrestles with the notion that the world is may a and wonders if the darkness of the cave is really a truer light emanated as a counterpart to some interior source of light within himself. He experiences himself from without through others and from within in terms of his mind and senses simultaneously, but cannot find a centre which can balance this and place it in perspective. In considering the cave existentially and symbolically, he is not sure whether it conceals and contains the true light or only obscures it. In Plato's Allegory of the Cave, the cavern symbolizes the world which obscures true light. Those inside the cave are continually involved in sensory delusions spurred on by a rationalizing mind which is completely tilted or skewed in terms of its grasp of Reality. It does not realize there is a vaster universe filled with light outside the shadowy world it inhabits.

 The caves of the Rishis, however, lead to light through progressive initiations along its corridors. This is the cave of the heart. It is essential to make the decisive distinction between the cave of the mind wherein obscuration takes place, and the cave of the heart, which leads to the centre-point connecting the mind and soul, the upward-pointing with the downward-pointing triangles. The release of the light from the heart is an act of compassion necessary for the alignment of the higher principles to the Logoic Ray of the Central Spiritual Sun. A beautiful archetype for this act is to be found in the Vedic myth of Indra as Valamruja ('Breaker of Vala'), who released the Cows of Light from the cave where Vala had hidden them after stealing them from the gods. Vala is the encircler who holds back light like a miser, concealing it from all the world. Indra as the Master of Svar, the luminous world of the Divine Mind, comes as a hero to slay Vala and "cleave his fences". In the words of the Rig Veda:

 That was a great deed for the Godliest of Gods: strong things were loosened and the firmly fixed gave way. He drave the kine forth and cleft Vala through by prayer, dispelled the darkness and displayed the light of heaven.

 Closely identified with the cave, Vala is Chief of the Panis, who are lords of sense-life, spiritual enemies who are jealous of their store and will not offer any sacrifices to the gods. They encircle men and block them. They must be expelled, overpowered or slain, for they prevent the Truth from emerging out of the subconscious to the level of the conscious mind. They steal illuminations (cows) from man and throw him into darkness. They withhold thoughts of Truth and create walls of falsehood. Thus, the Panis are powers that preside over the ordinary unilluminated sensory activities of life, whose immediate root is in the dark subconscious. Not himself dark or unconscious, he is a cause of darkness. His substance is of light but he holds the light in himself and denies it conscious manifestation. He must be broken into fragments in order that the hidden lustre may be liberated.

 The Panis (in the person of Vala) act in all three worlds but have the cave as their home. Not being fully conscious in their actions, they have forms of apparent knowledge which are really deposits of ignorance concealing Truth. It is through their agency that the personal mind misinforms the senses and in turn becomes deluded by them. Thus it comes about that the subconscious darkness associated with the telluric forces and the ordinary life of ignorance hold concealed in their obscuring fastness all that belongs to the divine life. Indra as the god of the Divine Mind shatters this cave and releases the light of Truth. The disciple, entering the cave of initiation, discovers the Truth, which shatters the confines of his mind-senses and enables him to see with his heart. This is what sheds light through all his vestures. The mind wills the entrance into the cave, but the heart must find the way, for it is the way into itself, into the primordial core of its antique centre. Here and here alone, standing in the deepest cavern of the Self, will the pure Ray of Spiritual Truth usher the initiate into full enlightenment.

Memory, like long
Corridors leading into
Deep and y awning caverns:
Echoes, echoes, echoes.
The heart beats,
And its pulse echoes
Through the halls and back
Along the labyrinth of Time.
Oh Great Antique mystery
I stand before your entrance
And feel my own blood echoing
Through your darkly hidden chambers.