Thunder

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THUNDER


Seven thunders uttered their voices. . . . And when the Seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, 'Seal up those things which the Seven thunders uttered, and write them not.

Revelations 10:3-4

 The boy trembled and wrapped the buffalo robe more tightly around his youthful shoulders. Through the tipi flaps he had seen the sky lit up with fiery dendrites, but the crashing roar accompanying them banished his curiosity and reduced him to a frightful awe wherein his heart's beat was swallowed in his mouth. He clutched at the wrist of the old man who slept peacefully beside him: "Grandfather, what is it, Grandfather . . . is it the end of the world?" Patiently, the venerable elder raised himself and extended his arm like a protecting wing over the small huddled form. "It is the voice of Paruxti, my child, the messenger of the Great Spirit Tirawa. Once again the gods walk amongst us and bring the first thunder of spring. Tomorrow will begin the preparations for the Thunder Ceremony, where we will greet him as he passes over the land. He comes with a great heavenly roar, blowing vast swaths through the grass before him. His voice vibrates along the rivers and splits the very rocks on the mountain's slope. From its booming echoes new life is stirred on earth and the ceremonial year begins afresh . . . just as you have sprung from the seed of my seed."

 The old man's words reached the child's ear attended, as it were, with vast, rumbling envoys of Paruxti's forces. Like the voice of God, his grandfather's words stirred him to the depths of his being, and he felt exposed and wholly receptive to the will of Tirawa as its manifest power engulfed him utterly, possessed him and carried him away on the indigo wing of a great heaven-bound bird. Perhaps this was the fabled thunderbird who guards the sky world's approaches and whose fiery outline flashes across the heaven at this time of year. Many are his mysteries, not the least of which is knowledge of what lies in the heart of a small boy. Being the mighty transformer, the ultimate shifter of shapes, it is perhaps this very thunderbird who has taken the form of Vulcan, Hephaestus or Thor, whose rumbling sounds are conveyed through hatchet, hammer or drum. Perhaps Cyclopean Brontes is even related, or proud Indra, whose abode rests between heaven and earth and whose thunderbolt strikes terror in the hearts of his enemies.

 Eddie myths depict Thor the Thunderer as a god of fertility who sends showers to earth. He is the son of Jord the Earth Mother, thus linking him to the manifest realm. When he blows into his red beard, the fearsome sound reverberates from heaven to earth, while monsters and trolls cower in anticipation of his hammered bolt. Juvenal once wrote that "there are those who tremble and blanch at every lightning flash; and when it thunders they are helpless even on the first rumbling in the sky". Indeed, it is difficult to discern whether thunder is evil or good. In Europe, by the time of the Renaissance, thunder had become inseparably associated with conjuration - both white and black - and in England its occurrence was taken to be a portent of sudden death as well as bountiful crops and flocks. When one examines the role of the Cyclopes in the Greek epics, the character of Brontes, whose name means 'thunder', is not clearly outlined. Being an offspring of Uranos (Sky) and Gaea (Earth), Brontes and his brothers are not of the same order as the later monstrous Cyclopes but represent primitive titanic forces operating before the more organized reign of Zeus. Such thunderous power has neither an evil nor a good face but is all the more awesome for its impersonal impact.

 Perhaps the thunderbolt is more tangibly dreadful and therefore often seen as the manifested anger of God. In Celtic mythology it is said that the god Balor has an evil eye which, though usually covered, opens during a thunderstorm and casts forth its dangerous bolts. Buddhists connect thunder with the dorje, and some Dhyani Buddhas are shown carrying thunderbolts, which are symbolic of the divine force of the Doctrine. The "rolling of the Dharma Thunder" is a poetic way of alluding to the spreading of the Teaching of Liberation for all living things. In the Japanese tradition Kami-nari is the rolling thunder god who, together with lesser thunder gods, is associated with a ladder which acts as a means of coming and going between heaven and earth. It is said that the Aizen-myoo (god of compassion) uses it to subdue men's evil desires and passions. This notion of connecting heaven and earth more closely parallels the idea of thunder as a messenger like Paruxti or the thunderbird or the Dharma Thunder of the Buddhists. It also links up with old British lore which asserts that thunder must accompany the birth of swans. With its ugly feet of clay and its buoyant heavenly body, the swan truly represents a close connection between heaven and earth.

 Roaring like a bull, thunder brings the fecundating rain and is associated with lunar changes. Thus impregnated with power, the rain is more nutritive or, as Plutarch observed, "the water often falls pregnant by thunder and their union is the cause of vital heat". Many thunder gods are shown astride a bull, who symbolizes diffusion, generation and impregnation. The father of abundance, the bull fertilizes the force of consciousness which is associated with the cow. In Vedic symbolism the Four-Horned Bull is the divine Purusha, whose horns are infinite existence, consciousness, bliss and truth. He is a man-bull whose three legs are the three human principles of mentality, vital dynamism and material substance. This bull has two heads which signify the double consciousness of Soul and Nature, or Purusha and Prakriti, and his seven hands represent the seven principles of life. "Triply bound (in mind, life-energies and body) the bull roars aloud; great is the Divinity that has entered into mortals."

  The sound of the primitive bull-roarer seeks to call down this divinity at times of initiation, when a clean break with the past is heralded by an entrance into a purified state of consciousness. An analogue to this lies in the change undergone in the atmosphere at the time of a thunderstorm. As a sixteenth century writer noted: "The ayre first by the thunder is purged, and the evill vapours consumed, yea the pestilence and other contagiousnesse often cleansed and put away." There is a sharp drop in humidity and the highly-charged electrical atmosphere exerts a certain influence on the nervous system, predisposing it to emotional shifts or even outbreaks. A definite shedding of old perspectives is indicated which may, if seriously pursued, result in something of truly occult significance as in the case of Pythagoras, who was initiated amongst the Idaean Daktyls by the 'purification of thunder', after which he was taken before the empty throne of Zeus. Draped with the god's garments, the throne symbolized the outer form of the deity and a preliminary stage to complete revelation.

 This ancient Cretan ritual was passed down in the Age of Zeus by those initiated into the thunder-blasting mysteries of the Titans of an earlier Age. It brings to mind a curious episode in early Greek myths relating to the sacrifice of Dionysus by the Titans. As the son aspect of Zeus the father, Dionysus was lured into the company of the Titans, who then devoured him, resulting in the creation of mankind, whose nature combined 'evil' bodies with something of the divine son's spirit. Since the decipherment of the Mycenaean Linear B tablets, it is known that Dionysus was worshipped in very ancient times, and the Titans of an even more antique Age continued to play a vital role in relation to emerging man. For their 'crime' they were destroyed by the thunderbolt of Zeus, but it was from their ashes that humankind was born. A mighty destructive and, ultimately, compassionate force is hereby suggested, lending an aura of sacrifice to these great primordial beings who have their prototypes in the pantheon of pre-Vedic cosmogony. It is fitting that there should have been initiations by thunder, because within the candidate all of the howling passions of his complex nature must come to the fore and be controlled. Like the Marut, sons of Rudra-Shiva who storm and rage within the heart, they are the wild occult potencies needed for authentic spiritual life.

  Rudra, like the bull, roars through the three worlds. Just so does thunder roar, and in Vedic symbolism its sound is the outcrashing of the word of Truth accompanying the outflashing of lightning which is its sense. Every word or sound has a shakti, which is the power to convey this sense, and every shabda (sound) in Sanskrit has an audible and a subtler essential aspect which vibrates with its innate meaning. This sound within is the true shabda, the fundamental sound or sphota. It is said that sphota arises in the indivisible spirit and is eternally luminous with power. It is the expressional aspect of the soul, a subtle voice which is the basis of all speech and mind-forms, the inner, indivisible, permanent sound (nitya vach). In the Agamas and Puranas, Parabrahm is 'the Supreme', and Shabda Brahman the power inherent in it. Thus, Vach is the creative Word (the dynamic principle of creation) which manifests in terms of its artha or meaning (its sense). The Word and its meaning are truly nothing without each other.

 Weaving together some of these varied strands relating to thunder, it is helpful to incorporate its empirical description to add a more tangible weft to our symbolic warp. As above, so below, at all levels of the human mind. So it is with everything in the universe and so it must be with thunder. A typical thunderstorm is a small local affair of relatively short duration. It is of convective origin and proceeds from a large anvil-shaped cumulo-nimbus. Within its periphery, up draughts of up to seventy miles per hour are accompanied by strong down draughts and choppy gusts. The storm as a whole is made up of cells of circulation, each with its own vertical draughts operating independently of other cells. Across the storm front they are joined together by the 'connective tissue' of lesser static clouds. The earliest point in the life-cycle of a thunderstorm cell is the cumulus stage, wherein a single up draught current prevails. In its mature stage, violent up and down motion marks the period of the storm's maximum intensity. A metamorphosis occurs at this stage which is attributed to the rotational properties of the up draught when it has become vigorous enough to form giant hail at its edge. With stronger circulation the up draught accelerates, causing the cloud to become steeper at its top, culminating in a turret-shaped column extending above the cell. When this collapses, the down draught increases, causing the cell to enter its final dispersal stage when rain is released and much of the cloud structure is evaporated.

 The physical sound of thunder (its audible shabda) is caused by an electrical discharge within the thundercloud itself. Three quarters of the energy released in the flash is spent in heating the air column surrounding the discharge channel (the temperature rises in a few microseconds to 30,000° C), causing the air in the channel to expand explosively, creating intense sound-waves or thunder. Such discharges occur in rapid succession. Since the path of lightning is not straight, a flash three kilometres long may cause a thunderous sound nine seconds in duration, and any part of the flash which is at more or less right angles to the line drawn to the observer will send sound to his ear at the same time. The sound coming from other parts will be spread out over an interval, resulting in variation in intensity of sound causing the rumbling roll of thunder. Reflected sound from hills and other objects may further lengthen the interval so that the reverberating effect is indeed awesome to the mind's ear.

 The convective instability requisite to the development of a thunderstorm entails a heating of surface air, creating considerable temperature differentiation with the upper moist air or the presence of unusually cold air aloft. That these conditions are not rare is borne out by the fact that over the earth as a whole there are an average of forty-four thousand thunderstorms occurring each day, and an average of eighteen hundred are in progress at all times. Like the keynote of nature or the Vedic chant of old, each new utterance of thunderous roar is merely tapping into an endless current of shabda as it echoes through the worlds.

 There is an interesting conversion involved in the production of audible thunder. The energy contained in one lightning charge is about 1010 joules, and the discharge released from this energy results in dissociation, ionization, excitation, kinetic motion of particles in the channel, radiation and expansion of the channel. The rapidly heated channel creates a cylindrical shock wave which propagates rapidly outwards. As it moves outward from the channel, its velocity decreases until it reaches that of a normal sound-wave, which is further modified by the atmosphere before it reaches our ear. This transformation can be seen as analogous to that whereby the silent sphota becomes the audible shabda or dhvani, the inner vibrant potential made manifest.

 Since the whole process is set in motion by an electrical charge, it is natural to wonder what causes electricity to form in clouds. In technical terms, the charge seems to be liberated during the splintering of freezing drops attributable to the thermo-electric effect upon ice by which the hydrogen and hydroxyl ions (formed by the dissociation of a small fraction of the ice molecules) become separated under the influence of a temperature gradient, resulting in an excess of positive charge in the colder part of the ice. As droplets freeze, a shell of ice forms around them, producing a positive space charge in the outer layers of ice, so that when the drop eventually bursts by the expansion of its freezing interior, ice splinters ejected from the surface tend to carry away the positive charge and leave the remainder of the drop negatively charged. This separation of positive and negative charge leads to a very rapid exponential growth of the electric field, further augmented by the collision between ice crystals and polarized hail pellets, until it is checked by gravitational separation of the particles, by leakage currents and finally by lightning.

 The shape that this dynamic process assumes is that of a great upthrusting pedestal, out of the centre of which rises a turret-like shaft resulting from the converging and overshooting currents of the up draught air. When this formation has reached its peak, it bears a remarkable resemblance to the sacred symbols of the linga and yoni, the emblems of the cosmic Purusha and Prakriti- Shiva-Shakti merged at the height of the storm. This perfect symbolic form soon collapses as the linga-like turret falls back into the pedestal, engendering a downward draught accompanied by rain. Taking the forces that produce the linga shape as critical generators of the storm, it is meaningful to explore the linga itself as an emblem of the great Lord Shiva, whose description in the Linga Parana astounds us with its power.

  It is said that whilst Brahma and Vishnu argued about their relative greatness, Shiva appeared wading across the flood. Winds blew hot and cold as he breathed, and with many arms and dishevelled hair he roared ferociously. Seeing his trident, his huge agitated body and distended phallus, Vishnu recognized him as the possessor of the seed of the universe. He saw his fire glowing in the form of an immense linga pillar, appearing in the cosmic night before the kalpa begins, and knew that it was self-grown (svayambhuva) and the source of all generation to be. The erect lingam made of stone or clay reflects this revelation and symbolizes the perfect seminal retention possessed by the Mahayogin himself. Thus, the ascetic god "whose seed is raised up" is both one with the bearer of the seed that creates the world and the liberator from it. Their polarity is between desire and liberation, and the path of Yoga (of which Shiva is lord) stretches between them. He operates at every point like Time itself, which consumes life and spews it forth into the Timeless. With the beginning of the kalpa, the true Lord as a flaming upright pillar ceases to be revealed as the great phallus spills forth its seed.

 In myth this is depicted in the story of Rudra who, at this point, cut off his lingam, which fell, sinking into the earth, to arise only in the cosmic night of another kalpa. When the turret-like lingam falls, the earth or the yoni can be seen as the receptacle. When Rudra's linga fell to the ground, it burnt everything before it with its flame, and it did not stop anywhere but agitated all creatures of the three worlds. Only in the yoni form of the Great Goddess of Nature could the lingam come to rest. At the end of its journey, the raging lingam of Shiva stood still, in yogic control, in the emblem of the sacred womb of the goddess. Whilst the idea of perfect balance between the dual forces is suggested here, yet another facet of the cosmic drama is shown in the Brhaddharma Purana where Shiva, absorbed in yogic trance, is apprehended by Parvati. She failed to arouse him. Yet he could not help but notice her, as she had taken the form of a foul-smelling corpse. Returning to his trance, the Great Yogin assumed the shape of the lingam and Parvati that of the yoni, whereupon she placed the lingam within her and plunged into the waters of creation. In this myth the death-dealing nature of the earth-earthy has the power to compel momentary recognition and draw down with it the rain that will nurture the inevitable cycle of growth and decay.

 The great tug-of-war between the positive and negative charges, the fiery and watery elements, has begun. The highly-charged field generated by this activity is bound to produce lightning, thunder and the release of rain. The slowly descending streamer that initiates the cloud's internal discharges carries a positive charge from the collapsed turret. This leader is followed by more rapid strokes which return negative charges upward, culminating in the intense build-up of heat, whose expanding shock wave manifests to our senses as thunder. One sees this as a great interplay between opposites, and yet the balanced merging of the lingam and yoni points to more than temporarily pacified opposition. The enormous transcendental potency of the symbol has its origin in the nature of Shiva as Ardhanarishwara who, from within his own manifestation, let step out the goddess. She, in turn, sent her shakti into the world of Daksha where, through his wife Virini, the Great Goddess was born as Sati, the ideal female whose symbol was the yoni. Put in parallel terms, Daiviprakriti manifests through Ishwara to become Prakriti, thus causing androgynous energy to manifest as both hidden and revealed fire. Henceforth the female element resided in Shiva's sacred grove and the Great Yogin went with Sati to Kailasha. In the Kunna Purana, Shiva declares that this female element (Prakriti) is his womb into which he casts the seeds of creation. It is the original maya through which the entire universe is born. It both conceals and reveals the Lord. The knowledge of ultimate reality and of contingent reality, in which the former dwells, is visually depicted by the lingam in the yoni. Yet, the urdvalinga which rises upward away from the yoni stands for Shiva, the ascetic who is seen as supported by the goddess, suggesting subordination and worship as well as tapas.

 The Sevenfold LOGOS having differentiated into seven Logoi, or creative potencies (vowels) these (the second logos, or 'Sound') created all on Earth.

The Secret Doctrine, ii 563

Mahat is Lord in the First Creation. In the Second (Kumara) Creation the first radiation from Mulaprakriti manifests as Manas, the Super-Astral (noumenal) Light, which is called the Fiery Serpent. Shiva, through his Kumaric offspring, then overbroods all the races of man during homogenesis. Subsequent progeny operate as the occult potencies concealed in the manifold aspects of the lower principles of Akasha, the sthula sharira. These are the Maruts who storm and rage within the candidate's breast and who are born over and over again until they "fill up their own places". They are lower aspects of Shiva who act as subordinates to Indra and his opponents variously, and stir up the forces within the cloud of maya called the world. If the sthula sharira is the perceptible body or aspect of the Lord expressed through the actions of the Maruts, the linga sharira is his subtle body which is cosmic in nature, preceding anything perceptible. Here the term linga suggests something of its essential meaning as a sign or emblem, a nominal base or design. Taking the form of the upright phallus with the seeds of generation retained in potentia, it becomes the purest symbol for that which is the cosmic substance of the imperishable Purusha or Shiva, that which is endlessly causal to generation but remains unmanifest.

 In the shape and forces of the thundercloud this complex pattern of primordial forces is revealed over and over again. The cold air of the fiery Lord bears down upon the heat of the watery mother earth, causing the air flow to move upward and form a pedestalled cloud. Within this cell the downward propelled positive charge interacts with the upward negatively-charged material, and a great turbulence arises, out of which the turret-shaped up draught rises and reveals itself, like the lingam atop the yoni, only to collapse and set in motion the forces that result in the production of lightning and thunder and the release of rain. Each time this occurs, the linga symbol of the noumenal cosmic progenitor is momentarily revealed, only to be 'cut off so that the flow of phenomenal life may continue. It is said that the mystery of the Seven Vowels (of the Seven Thunderers) was brought to Aryavarta by primeval Brahmins who were initiated in Central Asia and who understood that they related to the Seven Rounds and Races. They knew that when the Seventh Thunder had sounded and the Seventh Race of the Seventh Round was completed, Time would cease to be and Pralaya would set in. Then the thunderous roar of Lord Shiva will become sphota, his subtle essential voice which is eternally luminous with power.

 All of the thunderstorms (occurring at the rate of forty-four thousand a day in the world) massed together as one great storm would still not enable one to hear the true shabda of the thunder which will herald that completion. They are, altogether, only the faintest echo of the Voice of God reverberating from heaven to earth. But so great is the power of this Divine Voice that even its echo heralds the rain that brings life and generation to the world. Rudra-Shiva, roaring like a bull, prepares for the sacrifice that man may be born and ultimately realize his true androgynous essence. Through the stormy vestures of Shiva's nature is the journey to be made. Through tapas in the centre of the storm's battlefield the linga of Eternal Truth will arise. Let us worship this ideal, which is more than an icon.

At Gauri Kund
The Goddess trembling
Beheld the hidden form of her Lord,
Heard his thunderous voice.
Before the brilliant dark of its roar
She prostrated herself.
She rose up to his embrace.