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Last Updated on April 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021

Black Elk

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Among the figures to whom Campbell makes repeated reference is an old Sioux medicine man whose visions have been described in the book Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt. Black Elk described to the author how he had seen “in a sacred manner” from Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota “the shape of all things as they must live together, like one being.” Campbell cites this as an example of Black Elk’s inner eye having opened and the medicine man’s ability to transcend physical reality in order to stand at the center of the world. Black Elk sees that “the sacred hoop of his people was one of many hoops that made one circle wide as daylight and as starlight.” Campbell emphasizes that where Black Elk stands is not the literal center of the world, but a metaphorical center. He shows that a transcendent vision is not a geographical place, but a state of mind in which one is released from illusion, desires, and fears.

Indra, Vishvakarman, Vishnu, and Siva

Campbell relates a story from the Hindu Brahmavaivarta Purana, composed around the fifth century CE, that describes the humbling of the warrior god Indra. According to this tale, Indra was feeling unbelievably powerful and satisfied after destroying a monster named Vritra. This monstrous creature had held all the waters of earth so tightly wrapped in his coils that all of the earth lay ruined and barren. When Indra flung a thunderbolt at the demon, it destroyed him and released all the waters in a mighty deluge that flooded the world. Indra surveyed the devastation from the summit of Mount Sumeru and decided to build a city that would reflect his powers and glory. For this, he engaged the heavenly architect Vishvakarman. However, even after the architect had done all he could to create a city of great magnificence, Indra continued to approach Vishvakarman with more and more demands. Sickened, Vishvakarman approached Brahma, the universal creator, for protection. Brahma in turn approached Vishnu, the universal protector, who reassured Vishvakarman that all would be well.

The next day, a beautiful child carrying a parasol appeared at the gates of Indra’s palace. When the child gained audience with Indra, he asked him when his wonderful city and palace would be complete. No other Indra has built anything quite like what you are doing, he added. Amused, Indra wondered how a mere child could know anything of any Indras other than him. The child calmly replied with the names of Indra’s father and grandfather. He said that he knew of the existence of innumerable universes, each of which held a Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, along with countless Indras, because the lifetime of twenty-eight Indras equalled a single lifetime of Brahma. Astounded by the child’s words, and feeling a strange fear clutch at his heart, the king wondered who stood before him in the guise of a boy. Looking at some tiny ants walking in a line on the floor in front of him, the boy began to laugh. When the king wanted to know the reason for his laughter, the boy told him he was laughing because each of those ants had formerly been an Indra. It was the deeds committed in their lifetimes that had caused them to be reborn as lowly ants meant to make their way up the ladder of creation once again. It is selfless deeds that elevate the inhabitants of the earth, he said, and self-serving acts push people back into the realms of pain and rebirth among vermin. By delivering this stunning revelation, the child led the king to think about his own actions and conduct. But he also went further. Reminding him once again that wisdom lay in recognizing the tiny part one played in the whole macrocosm of creation, he pointed out, “Good and evil attaching to a person are as perishable as bubbles. In the cycles of time they alternate. The wise are attached to neither.”

A yogi then entered Indra’s court, with a strange ring on his chest where the hair had fallen away in the shape of a circle. The yogi revealed that the missing hairs represented the number of Indras who had existed and ceased to exist. Having brought to the king a sense of his own life as a tiny blink in the ceaseless unfolding of the universe, both the infant and the yogi disappeared. The child in this story is the god Vishnu, and the yogi is the god Siva.

Siddhartha Gautama

In chapter 3, “The Way of Art,” Campbell recalls the circumstances of the enlightenment of Prince Siddhartha, Gautama Shakyamuni, whom we later knew as Buddha. After leaving his palace one night on the speedy white horse Kanthaka, accompanied by his faithful charioteer, Chandaka, Siddhartha released the horse to return to the palace without his rider, causing Kanthaka to die of grief. He then began going from one hermitage to another in search of a way out of the misery of the human condition. He subjected himself to many ascetic practices, fasting till he was mere skin and bones, before realizing that this was not the way to knowledge and liberation. He accepted a bowl of milk and rice from the hands of Nandabala, the daughter of a herdsman, before settling himself under a tree, determined to rise only after he had seen and realized the ultimate truth.

All the powers that govern temporal life—namely desire, the fear of death, and social duty—attempted to distract Siddhartha from his intense meditation, but they failed to move him. It was then that a heavenly voice advised these distractions to retreat, because the prince was the Great Being who had arrived at the exact spot to receive “(1) the Eye of Transcendent Vision, (2) knowledge of his Life beyond lives, and (3) comprehension of the Law of Dependent Origination, by which all beings arise in mutual dependency.” Thus, he became the “Awakened One” and showed the world the middle path that enables humans to live in the most ordinary of circumstances with an extraordinary or transcendent wisdom.