The Ear

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear,

Gerard Manley Hopkins

  In the days that marked the beginning of Kali Yuga, when Lord Krishna walked and counselled among mortals, a child of the sun-god Surya was born upon the earth. His mother was Kunti Devi, who would also someday be mother to Yudhishthira, Bhimasena and the great archer Arjuna. When she was but a girl, Kunti had pleased the powerful sage Durvasa with her devoted attention during his visit to her adopted father's palace. As a reward he gave to her a divine mantram capable of invoking any god in order that he might appear and bless her with "a son equal to him in glory". Motivated by a childish mixture of curiosity and ignorance, Kunti called forth the Sun, whose luminous fire soon threatened to scorch the very moorings of her soul as he stood gazing at her in admiration. In vain did she attempt to undo the workings of her magic, for once uttered, such a mantram cannot be reversed. And so it was that the young unmarried princess conceived and gave immediate birth to the radiant child Kama, who sprang forth clad in divine armour and earrings as bright and beautiful as Surya himself.

  Divine births do not run the course of the nine-month gestation period required of ordinary mortals, nor do they necessarily issue from the ordinary channels of parturition. The divine character of such 'supernatural' births is so fully contained in the luminous son that his conception and delivery often involve unexpected but highly symbolic apertures of the virgin mother's body. She may ingest the divine seed with food or water, or it may be breathed into her and borne forth with the very word that echoes from her mouth. It has been suggested that Kama, like certain solar offspring of other ancient traditions, sprang forth from his mother's ear, thereby linking himself with a series of interrelated symbols hinted at by the magical power contained in his golden earrings and the meaning of his God-given name.

  Medieval paintings depicting the Holy Ghost as a dove flying down through a solar disc into the ear of the Virgin Mary echo this ancient idea. As with the Egyptian sun-god Ra, who, uniting himself with the breath of life, enters the right ear of man, so the Logoic Word of creation has often been depicted 'impregnating' the fertile ear of one who knows how to hear it. The relationship of the ear to conception and birth is illustrated further in its symbolic identification with the conch shell, whose whorling spiral is likened to the shape of the human pinna, its opening to the female vulva. For millennia shells have been used as talismans to assist at birth, and the gods of ancient India and elsewhere were depicted from early times with spiralled shells adorning their ears.

  In Sanskrit the term shankha especially denotes the conch shell, such as that used by Lord Krishna as the war trumpet which struck terror into his enemies and liberation into the hearts of his devotees. Called Panchajanya, this shankhapurusha could be heard echoing hither and thither, blown by Lord Krishna as he guided Arjuna's chariot in the great Mahabharatan war. As shankhapatra, the conch shell took the form of earrings emblematic of Uma and other mother-goddesses, who were also sometimes depicted with a curving serpent at their ear, a further symbolic twist to the coiled theme of fertility and divine conception. The offspring of Surya and a mortal mother whose role was cut in the same archetypal pattern, Kama (his name actually meaning 'ear'), like the Egyptian Osiris, was set afloat on the waters of the world, where his solar nature would be disguised and sorely tested. Protecting the sacred orifices of his infant ears, the bright golden kundalas (earrings) with which he was born shone bravely like miniature suns as he drifted along in his tiny silk-lined box. They whispered the memory of his celestial ancestry, the vast and radiant Akashic abode wherein his father dwelt.

I have seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.

William Wordsworth

Karna, as a name, depicts one who is long-eared, karnata is a condition of the ear, karnapura an ear ornament, karnasrava something that is audible, and karnaparampara the passing from ear to ear (of the word, of news or gossip). In Asian cultures long ears have always been considered the mark of greatness and nobility. Those not necessarily endowed with elongated lobes at birth wore heavily weighted kundalas, which resulted in an ever more pendulous effect. Some peoples, like the Berawan of Borneo or the Masai of East Africa, have favoured ear-plugs up to four-and-a-half inches in diameter and weighing almost three pounds to achieve a look of distinction, but apart from any desired cosmetic or social effect to be gained from the wearing of earrings, a deeper and more occult explanation for their use lies in their protective power as an amulet capable of guarding the orifice of the ear: keeping the evil out and locking the good within. In the ancient Peruvian myths Pachacuti, the greatest of the Incas, saw their ancestral god (the sun) standing radiantly before him with large golden plugs inserted in his pierced ears. The solar deity instructed him: "As a sign that from henceforth ye are to be esteemed, honoured and feared, your ears shall be bored in the manner that ye now behold mine." It is significant that when the Spaniards invaded the land of the Incas, they called them Orejones ('Big Ears'). Had they launched themselves westward only a relatively short way across the Pacific, they would have been impressed afresh and wondered about the possible connection between the Incas and the immense long-eared statues of Easter Island.

 Perhaps for the Incas and those of solar ancestry born to the Fifth Root Race, the earring was a talisman which linked them to the Logoic sound of their true origin, the Word of Truth which bathed them in a divine protective aura. One can see this idea reflected in the practices of the Plains Indian tribes, who pierced the ears of their newborn children at the time of the annual Sun Dance. But the long-eared statues of Easter Island hearken back to the even earlier Third Race and were monumentally echoed in the great statues of Gautama Buddha – the largest of which is one hundred and seventy-three feet high – at Bamian in Central Asia at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains. In Buddhist tradition the unnaturally large, hanging ears are believed to symbolize the omniscience of wisdom, the power of "Him who knows and hears all, and whose benevolent love and attention for all creatures nothing can escape". H.P. Blavatsky wrote that these five great statues belong to the handiwork of Initiates of the Fourth Race who were seeking refuge in the Himalayan ranges after the submersion of their continent. With their large hanging ears, the statues stand as sentinels guarding the inner fastnesses, the mountain heights, where the word of Truth is hidden. When Kama entered the world, his long gold-crested ears marked him as an embodiment of that glorious wisdom, but he was orphaned and raised by foster-parents and his noble birth was obscured. When he lost his protective earrings, the voice of his solar parent lost its exclusive hold upon his mind and heart, and the lesser voices of those who revelled in jealousy, cunning and hatred began to contaminate the noble stream of his consciousness. Unworthy things heard that might have earlier been brushed aside now fastened their unholy spurs into his thoughts and progressively narrowed his perception of dharma.

The ear of jealousy heareth all things.

Wisdom of Solomon

  But do we not have ears in order to hear the sounds of the world? If all that is essentially true can be heard only with some sort of inward ear, then why does man have ears at all? As with many such questions, one has to begin with the simple fact that human beings do have ears and, though their physical contours hardly provide any profound insight into human nature, they can assist in the investigation of higher levels of hearing and sound. Having first appeared some three hundred million years ago, the ear has had a long and complex history as it evolved in the various forms of life that have populated this globe. Rather than an organ of hearing, its earliest form was a semicircular cartilaginous canal associated with balancing. With the development of an air sac, the fluids within the fish were disturbed by their contraction and expansion, and they stimulated the sensitive cells in the balancing organ so that hearing took place. As fish took to land, small projections bulged out from the balancing organ, becoming curved tubes in crocodiles and alligators and tightly wound spirals in mammals. In the frog one can see clearly a middle ear evolved from the gill slits of the fish, from whose complex jaws the modified bones of the auditory ossicles originated. A keen sense of hearing developed in insects, who often possess an exposed eardrum on the sides of their thorax or sometimes, as in the case of the katydid, concealed behind vertical slits between the leg joints. Birds possess a very good sense of hearing through ears (much like those of man) which are hidden beneath feathers behind the eyes. But it is only man who, through the months of embryological development in the womb, recapitulates all of these phases of auditory development.

  As air is a relatively poor conductor of sound, the ears of land and air animals are constructed to catch weak vibrations and transmit them in concentrated form. The irregular whorled shape of the outer human ear helps to direct especially high frequencies and to eliminate confusion by producing sound 'shadows' cast by such frequencies from behind the head. The range of frequencies in which the most vital characteristics of human speech lie is between two thousand and five thousand cycles (sound waves) per second, a range perfectly amplified by the bowl-shaped concha and the outer ear canal working together. Sound is thus transmitted to the middle ear through the drum, whose vibration kicks off the mechanical action of the ossicle chain. This causes an augmentation of pressure twenty-two times over, producing enough force upon the oval window leading into the inner ear to overcome the impedance mismatch between the air outside and the fluid within that primordial inner chamber. It is in the inner ear that mechanical action gives way to a much subtler electrochemical transduction, affecting the perception of hearing in the brain. The hair cells in the cochlea provide the brain with detailed information concerning the position of the head relative to gravity, triggering all the appropriate muscle responses of the eyes, neck and limbs. Thus, along with the registration of sound, a more primitive sense of balance is controlled through a process of friction involving a shearing action between the hair-like nerve cells of the organ of Corti and the neighbouring basal membrane, which is set into various patterns of vibration by the sound waves striking it.

Of all noises I think music is the least disagreeable.

Samuel Johnson

  What is a noise or sound? Where does it come from? Is it merely a method of energy transference originated from the motion or vibration of an object? Is that what it is all about? Is there sound without an ear to hear it, or must one understand it in terms of the thirty thousand fibres that form the auditory nerve in the organ of Corti in the cochlea, or in terms of the brain's sound memory centre, which accumulates in the neighbourhood of four hundred thousand signals in the adult human? Should one understand sound in terms of the auditory channels 'tuned' to certain spatial frequencies, rates of change, movements or modulations? Perceptual processes have been assigned to progressively higher and higher neural centres, and yet the mystery of the origin of sound is allocated to the lowest mechanical level by the physical sciences. Given its fundamental communicative nature, is sound intelligence? Is the gossip of the karnaparampara merely a low-level reflection of a lofty, universally present network which cosmically links and embraces the force of mind? Must a human being have ears to think? Must one be able to hear and speak in order for the mind to function conceptually?

I'd gone to sleep in a secure world full of sound -wonderful dancing sound – and I awakened in a silence as woolly and obliterating as deep snow in the country.

Mary Hays Heiner

  Those born into a world of silence, whose ears hear no outward sound, are confronted with the awesome task of learning to speak intelligible words without ever having heard a syllable or a note. The entire syntactical structure of a language, which is assimilated intuitively and without much conscious effort on the part of a hearing child, is utterly out of reach to the mind of one born deaf. To what degree is language essential for thinking? Does it structure it, is it a substitute for it, and are our dreams moulded by our syntax? The deaf produce good results in tests based upon identifying the principles of sameness or symmetry. It is in tests emphasizing opposition that they experience difficulty, for verbal language constantly refers to opposition and lays the basis for most communication. But the internal organization of intelligence need not be based upon particulars viewed in opposition. It may develop organically from an inductive premise to embrace experience as part of a meaningful whole. The world within the mind, which is as silent as deep snow in the country, may be filled with dazzling conceptual patterns if the individual is not cut off from a lively sense of participation in collective human intelligence. But is this inner world capable of being in tune with a subtler sense of hearing, a subtler sound capable of striking the tympanum of a more ethereal inward ear?

A sound, if not previously produced on the astral plane, and before that on the Akashic, could not be produced at all. Akasha is the bridge between nerve cells and mental powers,

H.P. Blavatsky

  At this point one might ask whether there must be sound and hearing in order for there to be consciousness. Many may have noticed that when one is trying to get into closer touch with oneself while arousing the higher will, hearing one's own voice saying something which one wishes to affirm lends it an immediate and powerful reality. Is this because the intent has been brought all the way into physical expression, where it vibrates as an objective energy, or is it because the ear has heard one's own voice giving birth or formulation to the idea? Is there a sense in which the birth occurs when the words enter the ear? Between the thought and the perception of hearing it uttered lies a circuit of gestation, birth, death and rebirth, all involving sound on various levels. H.P. Blavatsky described the beginner in meditation who heard the "ticking of a clock on this plane, then on the astral – the soul of the ticking. When clocks are stopped there the ticking goes on higher planes, in the astral, and then in the ether [Akasha], until the last bit of clock is gone." If one strikes the seven notes of the musical scale, the seven sounds will reach consciousness simultaneously, but the untrained ear will hear them only as one note after another.

  The trained ear will hear the notes simultaneously, accomplishing a perfect synthesis with consciousness and thus mirroring a unity which lies within and behind the different vibrations of which the notes are composed. This is not to say that the physical ear can hear sound by anticipating it on the higher astral planes. Rather, it implies that the physical ear has become an obedient tool of the inner, more spiritually tuned, auditory centres and is no longer a slave to the sequential experiences of the external world of time and separation. The bridge between the mechanical and electrochemical auditory system and mental powers is Akasha. Without this omnipresent reservoir, whose attribute is sound, there would be no transmission or perception of sound. Even more fundamentally, there would be no sound and no ear to hear it, for the universe in its complex entirety would not exist were it not for the presence and unceasing continuation of sound.

  In the First Race, sound expressed itself and was experienced through the sense of touch operating on a far subtler level from that which we experience as touch. Subsequently, other senses developed, each being an expression and experience of sound gradually taking on an increasingly objective form and finally involving what we call objects and vibrating molecular particles on the physical plane of existence. The order of manifestation is suggested in the statement that "the disciple feels, hears, sees". One senses or 'feels' Akasha within oneself prior to actually hearing its sound, just as one 'feels' the indivisible and illuminating wholeness of Buddhi related to the "still small voice within". To tap this reservoir of potential is to "stir up Brahma", the Akashic power which lies at the bottom of every magical operation. It is to release the universal solvent of occult electricity, the aspect of Akasha which is symbolized by the coiled serpentine earring of the kundala. The outward symbolic adornment is but a reflection of the inner kundalini power whose fiery (kund, 'to burn or singe') nature is the activated aspect of the Logos manifesting out of the Akashic substratum of being.

  The coiled cochlea of the inner ear is like a fertile conch shell of ancient times, when hearing organs first arose in the primordial waters of life. It has crystallized around an inland sea of remembered sound. On the physical plane it houses the transductor of sound, to be routed and stored in the memory centre of the brain. But like the concha of the outer ear, it is really a spiralled womb wherein conception, differentiation, augmentation and birth take place. Mimicking the coiled power stations which exist at various levels of man's astral nature, the cochlea can be said to receive and transmit in both directions. Man as the microcosm stands at the pivotal point between the spiritual potential of Akashic heights and the cacophony of the world. The fluid of the inner ear represents an ontologically prior state akin to the scattered consciousness of chaos, and the air of the outer world a dense and disturbed reflection of the ethereal inner atmosphere in which the pure sound of the One Life reverberates without the interruption or the confusion produced by competing wave cycles. The highest neural centres in the physical auditory system are but tiny way-stations capable of conducting to lower centres the intimations of this pure sound. But only after it has been first perceived by the Buddhic ear of the soul as it resounds to its manvantaric pitch can it be registered upon such earthly sounding boards. The electrochemical aspect of the auditory process may be far more subtle than the mechanical, but it too seems crude in its limitations when compared to the fluidic refinements of transmission at higher levels, where physical notions of time, direction, balance and hearing perception are entirely inadequate.

  It is in relation to an inner sense of balance that one commonly experiences the first intimations of Akasha. This is fitting, not because balance precedes hearing in some evolutionary sense, but because it involves a conscious sense of centering, which is the first step in aligning oneself with the periphery which is everywhere. To be in balance in the broadest sense is to experience oneself as a zero merged with the cosmos and as the centre of that cosmos at one and the same time. Every lesser sense of balance experienced, right down to the physical level where the body follows the head of a diver doing a double flip off a board, is merely a diminished reflection of this greater, potentially cosmic, sense of balance that prepares the way for the Logoic voice within. In this sense it can be truly said that there can be no sound without an ear to hear it. To put it differently, the universes of vibration that constitute the cosmos do not manifest willy-nilly, all askew, but rather under Law, based upon the same unchanging balance of cause and effect reflected in the balancing capacity of the inner ear. Thus, as the One Life is the source and expression of intelligence, so sound is intelligence and the innate wisdom of individuals checked and balanced by an inner spiritual ear. This is why it is impossible to know what the insights and understanding might be even of a so-called deaf mute, whose external world is a woolly silence, but whose inner life may be informed by intelligence of the rarest and most difficult kind to communicate externally. Consciousness is indeed dependent upon sound and hearing but not the sounds or hearing to be found in the animal world. One may hear and be strengthened by the sound of one's own voice, but one will be lifted closer to the origin of the higher conscious will only if the voice carries within it the pure timbre of selfless and universal Buddhic compassion.

  To 'feel' this voice before attempting to give it speech, to allow the breath of life to breathe freely into the fertile shell of the inner spiritual ear, is to prepare oneself for a true solar birth. In this effort the limitations and tragic mistakes of Surya's son Kama are most instructive. Fathered by the Sun as he was, adorned with magical kundalas and kavacha and swaddled by a spiritually initiated mother, Karna still suffered the deafness of one who hears, but not exclusively, the voice of his immortal divine Self. Even more generous than the gods, he was still a slave to worldly opinion and cared more for his self-conceived honour than for the grander perspective of Right and Wrong. Thus did his courageous solar spirit become entrapped in the web of words seeking to rationalize lesser conceptions of dharma. The loss of his earrings is but a symbolic prelude to his rapidly increasing vulnerability to ideas borne on the blackened wings of words uttered by jealous and vengeful minds locked into the frozen limitations of a one-life point of view. Kama's fall is complex and mysterious, carrying with it the devious schemes of gods and men, but it alerts one to the grave dangers that would be encountered all too commonly in the adharmic centuries of Kali Yuga which would follow. By losing the larger picture of cosmic dharma, Kama lost his balance. His generous nature and sense of loyalty easily became attached to an unworthy cause, and the sound of Krishna's conch shell became no more to him than the challenging blast of an enemy.

  The ear may well hear the most captivating or informative secrets the world has to teach, but does it hear the call of Lord Krishna's Panchajanya? When the great battle is raging and the field of Kurukshetra is scattered with the bloodied limbs of friends and foes alike, to what will one's ear be tuned? Yudhishthira, fighting at the front of the Pandava forces, strained his ear to hear Krishna's blast and knew that there was still hope. Darting in and through the smoke and debris of ruined bodies and weapons, through the very jaws of death, Krishna guided Arjuna, and the blast of Panchajanya echoed over the stench and ruin to inform Yudhishthira that all was well. Like the Akashic connection between the worldly brain and the immortal Ego, the reverberating blast of the mighty conch soared above the limitations of mechanically multiplying hopes and fears and spoke to the souls of the Pandavas and their allies.

  Arjuna with his mighty bow Gandiva watched his lord as their chariot sped along the field. He saw how he held the whorled end of the shell to his lips, and he heard the pure and mighty sound as it gathered increasing strength and density, filling the air for miles around. He realized suddenly, even as the sky darkened with arrows about him, that the sound was being produced in exactly the reverse manner as that whereby he heard it with his outer ear. Deeply struck by this, he automatically plucked the arrows from his quiver and released them unconsciously from the deadly string of his famous bow. He puzzled and wondered, until at last Krishna's voice, urging his attention, interrupted his reverie and he understood. For in that voice so beloved to him he discerned for the first time the Akashic tones of his highest Logoic Self.

  He heard and he knew that the beauteous voice which seemed to come from without came from within him and was heard as the immortal breath of Truth intoning through him. The ear that heard it was an ethereal Panchajanya, an inner spiral coil which received and unleashed a sound so cosmic in its timbre that it seemed to him the spiralling galaxies themselves must revolve within his head. The narrow band of frequencies known to ordinary human speech was not capable even of detection in the mighty stream of Krishna's words. It flowed unbroken through his consciousness, filling his outer ears and masking out all the lesser clamour and cacophony of the world around him. Guided only by this lordly voice, Arjuna glided faultlessly forward in what had become an otherwise silent world. Into the mouth of the battle he flew, never erring, never hesitating, never exhibiting any vulnerability to taunt or curse or to raucous distraction. Thus, with ear poised to catch his Lord's every instruction, Arjuna fought and won the spiritual battle of the human soul.

Truth never ceases to vibrate in this world;
Nor can it rest...
For it is the very substratum of all life.
The ear that hears it never ceases to hear . . .
For it is Truth itself, revelling in its own utterance.