The Ocean

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Tell me, who are you, lying here in darkness in this dreadful, desolate, solitary sea?' Hearing these words and smiling, the one whose banner bears Garuda spoke to Lord Brahma with a voice deep as the rumbling of a cloud. 'Bhoh! Bhoh! Know me to be the god Narayana, origin and dissolution of the worlds. See inside me the entire world, the continents find their mountains, the oceans and the seven seas, and also yourself, the grandfather of the world.'

Vishnu Purana

 What are these sounds of murmured dialogue that presage the earliest piercing beam of light that could cleave that dreadful desolation? What is the nature of that slumbering, solitary god who is the origin and dissolution of Brahma, and is he separate from the vast oceanic darkness in which he rests? He is said to brood over the waters and yet pervade them even as he sleeps. Is he moist or fiery, or does he hover like the breath of wind which prepares to move about some aspect of itself? The mind floats like his slumbering form out over the furthest abyssal depths, and yet it cannot fathom the mystery. It cannot grasp in its otherness how the murmured dialogue could begin . . . how the infinite darkness of a depthless sea could pour forth the tidal flow that strikes the earthly shore. The Polynesians speak of the "up-rearing billows that come hither from Kahiki", which is a mythological region of the gods. They tell of the rising tide over which dashes the Heavenly One who is the Encircler of Islands, whose cosmic presence is everywhere reflected in their watery world. Samoans, Tahitians, Hawaiians . . . they moved with this reflected presence and knew the rhythm of its tide patterns by memory. They understood the significance of its surface colouring and they used to say that they could read the form and wrinkle of its currents. But the great ocean in which they discovered their own powers and fears never lost its mystery, and to these islanders who knew it best, its hidden depths ever receded. Like Vikings they went forth, but like lovers they caressed the sea in their poetry and legend. Flowing tresses never loved so well as those drifting black through the water that falls beyond the reef. The terror of the cold abyss is softened by the beauteous sadness expressed upon a death at sea, and the haunting sense of loneliness is embraced even as the drop merges with the ocean's depth. Their eyes traced the curve of the endless watery plain and their hearts pursued the wake of loves and dreams that floated for a moment upon the silvery edge before sinking into the dark sleep of the abyss.

 But as the ocean takes life into its yawning depths, so also does the ocean beget it. The Eskimo living in the polar regions obtain their living from the sea and are careful to placate Sedna, 'the Food Dish', whose temperamental nature regulates the abundance of their catch. Though she is often angry, people everywhere, like the Eskimo, conceive of the sea as a great mother within whose womb all forms find their beginning. In the Taoist conception the ocean is equated with the Tao and is identified with the primordial Inexhaustible which informs nature at creation. She is the abysmal mother who for C.G. Jung symbolized the collective unconscious which can beget monsters as well as benevolent forms. One poetical observer referred to the ocean as an "immense illogic" and characterized its nature in terms of "a vast expanse dreaming its own dreams and asleep in its own reality". That germinative and destructive reality is indeed like the hidden depths of the unconscious, which may well up and devour the poor guideposts of relative sanity that bob like vulnerable islands in its vastitude. It is also the amniotic fluid which cradles the delicate forms of the most primitive life. It is the buoyant, fertile matrix which supports and nurtures every potentiality, be it beneficently beautiful or monstrous. Few are the people who fail to see in the ocean both a source of awesome wonder and a symbol of their irrational fears. There is life out there . . . teeming, multiplying, exhaustless life.

And there is terror . . . dark, hidden embryos of faceless monsters that wait and sometimes grow gigantic within that dark labyrinth.

 From the Greeks came the name Οκηανος (Oceanos), whom they believed to be the offspring of Uranos and Gaia. They described it as a great river that encompassed the earth's disc and returned to itself. In this sense it evokes the symbol of the serpent eating its tail and is reminiscent of Typhon, who is linked with the eternal cycle of the immortal soul but whose dark aspect devours like the sea which swallows the sun at the end of each day. The name Oceanos comes from οχηις (okeis), which is the root of a number of words designating quickness, speed and ease of delivery. This is directly linked to the two fundamental symbolical aspects of the ocean having to do with transition of form and ceaseless motion. All water tends to dissolve forms but salt water breaks them down more quickly. It is significant, perhaps, that the Akkadians distinguished between Apan, the sweet-water source of all life, and Tiamat, salt water identified with the powerful forces of blind Chaos. It is the latter which incorporates all potentialities and suggests the symbol of universal life, while a single drop represents life in a particular form. The swiftness of motion and ease of delivery of the ocean ensure a constant transformation within the drop which, despite its remarkable odyssey through the complex hydrological cycle, will merge once more into the matrix of the whole.

 Perhaps sensing this imminent merging, man has always dreamed of crossing the waters as though he would mark out his individual existence against the backdrop of non-being. Of such longings one maritime author wrote: "Locked in the soul of every windship master lay a dream that nothing could kill: of a passage yet to be made; of a long traverse in which his command would be so favoured by the elements that she would carve for them both a record passage and a niche in the archives of the sea." The challenge, the fight, is the thing, as well as the crossing; the endlessly haunting attraction the Great Deep exercises upon the soul which longs for freedom from the dust-choked body of existence. How else can one understand the dreadful hardships endured and the bravery that characterized the early voyagers. A thousand years ago the Vikings - from the Norse word vik, meaning 'fjord' - mastered the Atlantic Ocean in their wonderfully built dragon ships. They pushed forth into the great storms of northern waters for the sheer love of the unknown, and could get along for days with little food and drink. They kept no slaves at the oars but rather, fighting men who fixed their shields along the gunwales while they rowed. The long-necked vessels were without decks, and in bad weather the men sheltered themselves as best they could, using their leather sleeping bags as tarpaulins. Their hardships gave them strength and when they battled, the enemy's ranks suffered the onrush of a force born out of the ocean itself. It is said that when the Vikings, who conquered England and took up homesteading, neglected their ships and turned their backs on the sea which had made them great, they slowly degenerated. Eyes and ears accustomed to vast distances and immense silences cannot adjust their focus easily to the lesser sensations of more artificial environments, and the effect seems to shrivel the soul in some strange way. Even the ruthlessness of the sea seems more aligned with a greater truth. Joseph Conrad wrote that the sea "brings out the inner worth of a man, the edge of his temper and the fibre of his stuff, the quality of his resistance and the secret truth of his pretenses . . . the most amazing wonder of the deep being its unfathomable cruelty". Perhaps the secret truth, whether cruel or liberating, is best mirrored in the sea, for it is there man finds a solitude which defies the punctured cries of his fellows bent upon their lonely passages through its darkness.

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

Samuel Coleridge

 In possessing an ocean bordered by continents, the world is probably unique in our solar system. In order for this phenomenon to occur, there must exist the conditions responsible for basins as well as the presence of large quantities of water. This is linked up with the particular history and composition of the earth's crust, which floats in lighter granitic layers that are higher than the basalt strata making up the larger, heavier ocean floors. Studies of the Atlantic Ridge indicate that the basins were formed by the lateral spreading of volcanic material, which is also relevant to the notion of continental drift. The great trenches in the Pacific - the South Sandwich Deep, the Japanese and Mariana - are closely parallel to active volcanoes and usually curve along a line of islands. The basin floor seems to be folding downward at these points in response to convective movements in the liquid core of the earth. The gravity of the earth is such that the water vapour given off by its slowly solidifying crust has not escaped into space, and because of its temperature, water clings to the globe in mostly liquid form. When frozen water melts at the poles, the sea level rises, as it has been doing since the close of the Pleistocene Ice Age, and the water released dilutes the salinity of the warmer seas. Thus the shoreline contracts and expands in conjunction with an intricately interdependent global atmospheric, lithospheric and hydrospheric system.

 Polar cooling and equatorial heating ensure circulation and result in unequal temperatures that set the atmosphere in motion, creating winds that produce the great currents of the world's oceans. This interaction of wind and water is guided by gravity and the earth's rotation, which accompany the sinking of heavier and rising of lighter water. Areas of highest salinity are those of great density and correspond roughly with high atmospheric pressure. It is toward these areas that the constant and strong tradewinds blow, each influenced by the coriolis forces operating in the Northern and Southern hemispheres of the globe. The sinking of denser water creates deeper currents, and the rippled floors of ocean basins at depths of twelve thousand feet indicate a regular but very slow movement. The plunging chasms of the abyssal trenches, however, have not yielded such markings. At depths of thirty-five thousand feet, the water remains icy cold and largely unmoved by layers of water varying in degree of salinity and temperature above. This bottom water underlies all the oceans, spreading out slowly as it sinks from the surface at the North and South Poles.

Waves are not moving masses of water. It is the shape that moves along, while the water stays, more or less, where it is.

 While under favourable conditions waves continue in the direction of the original wind indefinitely, surface turbulence is often due to a confusion of different wave systems. They might coincide at the crests, causing high waves, or at troughs where they may cancel one another out. When waves reach the shallows, the energy once carried through a deep column of water is concentrated and every pound of flow has increased energy stored in it- Great stones have been thrown by waves over the roof of the Tillamook lighthouse, which stands ninety-one feet above the sea on the Oregon coast. 'Long' waves with extended periodic oscillations travel enormous distances, and storms in New Zealand send breakers to the California coast. But there are no waves which can compare with the ferocity of the legendary tsunamis. They are often a hundred miles long and travel in fifteen-minute intervals at four hundred fifty miles an hour. The Krakatoa wave of 1883 came across the Sunda Straits at one hundred thirty-five feet in height. Ships at sea have ridden waves over seventy-five feet high, and in 1933 the U.S.S. Ramapo observed a gigantic swell of one hundred twenty-two feet. But the water stays, more or less, where it is. The grand and potentially destructive disturbance moves along, using the water as it goes, while the cold abyss beneath quivers gently and conceals layers of unmoved depths.

 The ocean is delicately sensitive. It is a better conductor of electricity than fresh water, and sound can be transmitted through its matrix over immense distances with very little loss of intensity. Chemically, it reflects the maximum complexity of the earth's potential. There are seventy-five elements found in sea salts, a full array of plant and animal nutrients and combinations of dissolved gases, including a plentiful supply of oxygen at the surface. Besides spawning myriad forms of life, the ocean takes up the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (which, due to industrialization, has increased thirty per cent in the twentieth century), and unmeasurable waste material from the continents. Like the impersonal receptacle of life that it is, the ocean is the dumping ground of the world and it absorbs good and bad alike, sorting it out according to unbending laws that reflect neither hopes nor fears nor the ephemeral vanities of worldly affairs.

 It is devoid of light and terrible in its mystery, but there is no depth of the ocean where there is not some form of life. In the abyss there are no plants, and carnivorous organisms of very strange design devour one another. Some have eyes on stalks that function even in complete darkness, seeing light which they themselves emit, and their mouths are disproportionately large with teeth like scimitars. They are delicate, many having thin spines to keep them free from the ooze gathered at the ocean floor. Some live in complete stillness, unaware of the passage of enormous forms whose shadows blend with the lightless grottos in which they exist for a time before becoming part of the continuous blanket of ooze. The unseen shadow may be that of a giant squid sixty feet in length, or a great sperm whale with which it may enter into mortal combat. Monsters of the deep, whose size could not be supported on land, are buoyantly nurtured and grow to awesome dimensions in the darkened privacy of the sea. They live their lives, like the infinite plankton glowing upon the foam, apart from man save for occasionally entering into his most fearful dreams.

 The great buoyancy of the sea supports an enormous variety of creatures. From the hundred-foot whale to the boneless jellyfish, they all float and multiply with the burst of life that takes place in the sea at springtime just as it does on land. This floating world is a medium in which the lowest and most fragile forms of life can exist. Being highly sensitive to chemical and physical changes, they form links in a food chain which spans every level of physical life and which is constantly involved in an extremely rapid process of transition. The fluidity of the ocean is reflected in the ease of delivery within its womb and the constant exchange of life that goes on at every level of its depths. It is a vast yolk-sac filled with the fluids of life, and man is drawn to it as if to a mother who waits to lull him and take him away from the harsh contours of conditioned existence. In waking life men face the harshness and attempt to fight off the obstacles that surround them, but in dreams there arise longings for escape back to the womb, the contemplation of the great oblivion of the deluge. Perhaps it is because of this barely disguised desire and of an awareness of the inexorable powers of dissolution operating continually in the world that men have kept alive the stories of the great floods, when the ocean wave has covered the continent. Men try to grapple with the paradox of their attraction to and fear of dissolution by gazing out over the incoming sea and experiencing, temporarily, a forgetfulness of their separate self, a momentary merging of the drop within the ocean.

O masculine sea, feminine sea, mad sea,
Delirious sea,surrounding sea of Iku.
The islands are surrounded by sea,
The frothy sea of small billows, of low-lying billows,
Of up-rearing billows that come hither from Kahiki.

Polynesian Poem

 In the Satapatha Brahmana there is a description of the fabled churning of the ocean of milk. This marvellous event is ordinarily associated with the first age immediately following the deluge. But it relates, in actuality, to a period before the earth's formation and is connected with the War in Heaven and the Fall of Angels. At this time, it is said, the mother swelled and a vibration touched the germ that breathed in darkness over the slumbering waters of life. Darkness radiated light as the Eternal Egg condensed into the World Egg and the three fell into the four, becoming seven inside and outside. The luminous egg spread in milk-white curds throughout the mother, through the depths of the Ocean of Life.


 The mother is described as 'the Fiery Fish of Life' and she scatters her spawn while the Breath (Motion) heats and quickens it. The miniscule spawn are soon attracted to one another and form the curds in the 'ocean' of space which does not divide into its constituent and potential particles until the stage is ready for human evolution.

 This great churning took place in the pregenetic days of our planetary system and is said to have produced the soma that embodies the triple power of the Trimurti. At this time the first War in Heaven took place and established an archetype for subsequent churnings and wars such as that which occurred at the time of the 'creation' of man and at the close of the Fourth Race, when a great battle ensued between the Adept-Initiates of the Sacred Island who heralded the Fifth Root Race and the sorcerers of Atlantis. These last are described as huge red-coated giants who heard the roar and felt the cold waves roll about them. They rushed to their heavy, slow-moving cars, but the crumbling earth no longer supported them and they were drawn into the mouth of the treacherous ocean, which seemed to take savage pleasure as it claimed the last traces of their vast island. This great struggle is again depicted in the Ramayana and echoes the eternal contest between the evil serpent Apop, who endlessly seeks to defeat Osiris and prevent the lifting of the bark of the sun out of the waters of Khnum. After every great war a drop of this serpent's blood yet survives and ensures a future struggle between the dual forces of existence. The sun which takes up the sweet and clear elements of the ocean must still be swallowed by the sea each night as the cycles unfold in this world.

 In the cosmic ocean which conceals all phenomena in potentia, Narayana slumbered upon "the endlessly remaining" serpent Sesha Ananta. He is the supreme primordial spiritual man who is Vishnu, representing the resting deity, the serpent and the ocean itself. In the Puranas he is made to pronounce: "By me the universe poured forth long ago. Age after age this universe comes forth from me, O Markandeya!" He is like the endlessly encircling waters of the Egyptian god Nun, who is both the god and the waters out of whom all the other gods were born. It is in his substance that the eternal egg became the world-egg of Brahma, composed of prakriti. The Puranas state that surrounding the navel of Brahma were the waters of Mahat which, it is said, he brought into the realm of prakriti through the worship of time, The Egg of Brahma is described as having fourteen parts, including seven continents which are encircled by seven successively greater seas bearing names like Ksara (salt), Sura (wine) and Ksira (milk). These substances represent specialized matrices that, in reality, exist in coadunition with one another, symbolizing in their collectivity the universal cosmic ocean of infinite space.

 It is with the descriptions of the dissolution of this world that one begins to perceive more of the fluidic metaphysical subtleties involved in the emanation of the phenomenal out of the noumenal ocean. Dissolutions or pralayas are of several degrees. There is the Naimittika, which involves the destruction of creatures but not substance; Atyantika, which concerns individual nirvana; Nitya, which is continual-, and Prakritika, which ushers in the end of the life of Brahma. In this last, everything is resolved into the primal element. The prakritic Egg of Brahma dissolves into the great ocean of Narayana, who is said to assume the nature of sattva and become the One Sun. He dries up all the sea, gulps the fiery waters of the nether world and sucks all the moisture from every form of life. As the wind, he sucks up all the airs and, reducing the world to fiery ashes, he commences to flood the whole. The Vishnu Purana describes how clouds like elephants pour down drops as big as dice and floods overspread the world, filling the middle region and inundating heaven. The Manus, Pitris and gods repair to Janaloka, where they rest in their subtlest forms while the entire solar system is enveloped in darkness . . . the Night of Brahma reigning supreme over the scene of desolation. It was thus that the great sage Markandeya, along with everything else, was swallowed by Hari and is said to have lived in the slumbering lord's belly for many thousands of divine years. In the mythical tale he is described as roaming about and performing intense tapas before slipping out of the god's mouth. Once outside, Markandeya saw the ocean shrouded in darkness on ail sides and he grew acutely afraid, doubting that he would survive. He looked at the great slumbering god and in his thrilled amazement asked, "Who are you?", at which point he was swallowed again. Back in the belly of the god, the confused Markandeya thought it had all been a dream, but later Narayana told him "Who but the Son of the Self of all creatures with his yogic power would be able to see me playing on the vast ocean . . . who but yourself?"

 Even before primordial Chaos developed into the Sapta Samudra (the seven oceans emblematic of the seven principles or gunas), Vishnu overbrooded the noumenal expanse as Eternal Law which periodically calls forth Kosmos out of Chaos. Plato saw this Kosmos as the Son whose father and mother were Divine Thought and matter . . . the son of Self who, like Markandeya, by yogic powers could know his parents. He was a spark of the First Logos radiating from Akasa, the universal ocean in which lies eternal ideation. This endless sea has only the attribute of sound, which is echoed even in the earth's physical ocean, with its ability to transmit sounds faithfully over great distances. Stirred up in magical ritual, Akasa is occult electricity, whose material progeny is so easily transmitted through the ocean waters of the world. In spite of the mystery separating the noumenal from the more phenomenal realms, it is as if the Sons of the Son of Chaos carried conditioned genetic traces of an illimitable potential stored in a universal gene pool.

 The root of life that was in every drop of the ocean of immortality is described as pure sattva, the Atma-Buddhi corresponding to Parabrahm and Mulaprakriti which Vishnu becomes in the allegory of dissolution. During the periodical sleep of the universe, this root-matter is said to be "of the ultimate tenuity conceivable to the eye of the perfect Bodhisattva". It is the water productive of Mahat, which surrounded the navel of Brahma and was the source of manas and ahankara. Shankaracharya taught that this Universal Mind first appeared as Vishnu who, radiating forth Divine Thought through Mulaprakriti, produces the prakritic egg which pours forth the astral Sea of Fire, parent to all subsequent matrices of life. This emanation generated the moneron in its drops, which were called oceans, and these required subtle physical conditions to further evolve and become the primitive Father of Man. This moneron, or monad, is like a drop out of the shoreless ocean of space. In itself, as in its human monadic collectivity, it remains inviolable until it merges with the ocean at the time of the Solar Pralaya. Thus, the Logos reflects the entire universe in the Divine Mind, enabling the universe to reflect itself in each of its monads.

Wisdom lies concealed under the couch of him who rests on the golden lotus floating on the water.

 The universal unit called Manifesting Mind is a great electric ocean in which operates a vast Host of cosmic Dhyan Chohans whose essence is that of the ocean itself. They are ancestral to the Kumaric Host connected with the birth of the spiritual microcosm and the dissolution of the universe. . . to the great sea dragon who, like the dolphin of Greek and Egyptian legend, rises out of the water at the first sunbeam to teach the wisdom of the body (ocean) of Nara. He is 'the Sublime Fish' who represents the first avatara of Vishnu, the Spirit of Paramatma. Embodying the wisdom of the ocean of life, he rests easily upon it, an accomplishment reflected in the mastery of Christ, who walked effortlessly upon the waters. Peter, who wished to follow his lord, was filled with fear as he placed his feet upon the wave, and he easily typifies the hope and fear that man combines in his inner nature as he approaches the brink of mystery.

 Man, whose physical form is largely made up of water and salts and ooze, experiences within himself intimations of more ethereal oceans of being which wait to be crossed. But he is afraid of the abyss, for it promises the dissolution of his bodily form. Even his dreams present oceans of astral foreboding where dark forms lurk in the depths of the unconscious mind. He senses the very roots of primordial life within the current of his own spiritual, astral and physical heritage, but he fears the giant waves that may smash his small ship and destroy the delicate balance that enables him to sustain a sense of navigational control. So he sits along the shore and looks out over the great moving body of the deep or he fights through the waves in his efforts to dominate them, thinking he can thus overcome his fear of mortality. He plays along the breaking tide, sympathizes with whales and is terrified of sharks, but he will not face the uncompromising depth of mystery which lies within the abyssal darkness of the unknown.

 An individual War in Heaven is required to enable the wandering beachcomber to strike out towards an unseen shore which hovers like the couch of Narayana over the horizon. Perhaps it is called Kahiki or the White Island, but the passage there brings forth the inner worth of a man and it dissolves the last shreds of any pretenses the voyager may still clutch to his bosom. Within himself he will discover unknown depths where the dark, still waters mirror fainyly yet faithfully the pattern of the world's beginnings. He will explore the warm and cold, saline and fresh layers of his ancestry and come to understand how the deepest currents explode in surface winds and tides. And he will recognize the astral sea around him, learning precision and discrimination while moving through its matrix of hypnotic voices and dreaming forms. He will learn, like the Polynesians of old, the exact pattern of the tides and master the art of initiating an impulse which synthesizes their various rhythms. He will see the waves and storms in his surface nature for the ephemeral moving shapes that they are and realize that the life-giving waters themselves barely move. No longer will he seek to escape back into some lesser dissolution, but he will meet the Great Flood of Vishnu within his own highest Akashic nature and rise up on the wave of the cosmic ocean. Moving along that crest, beyond the sinking of great continents, the seas of salt and wind and sugar-cane juice, the churning of the ocean of milk . . . beyond all these things he moves. Like Markandeya he sweeps along with the rushing current to his rest. The sailor stripped of hope and fear, without vessel or anchor, may cross the greatest ocean of all. The voyager may come home.

The tide rises,
Oh, fill my heart.
Burst the limits of my eyes,
And let me flow to the silent sea
Which rests beyond the wind.