By Catherine L. Schweig
In the city I grew up in, we set aside one day a year just to slay demons.
On the Saturday before Easter, every market and plaza overflowed with colorful devil effigies made of paper maché, stuffed to the rim with gunpowder and fireworks. In true medieval fashion, we’d hoist them up at twilight with loud fanfare and commotion before setting the devils ablaze.
I still remember the distinct and exciting smell of devils burning, watching safely from my bedroom balcony as a little girl. Inevitably swept into that familiar dragon-slaying storyline, I connected with the satisfying triumph—however primal—of good over evil, like countless humans before me.
It felt safe to destroy those who have the power to hurt us. “Burn, devil, burn!”
Spinning around like sparkling pinwheels, the dying, red devils appeared to inject the masses with the illusion that demons demand violent ends, or that light must always defeat darkness. For there has always been a part of human nature—of you and me—that needs to see the demon slain, and so we cheer-on the slayings generation after generation, through myths, fairytales, rituals, movies, videogames, etc.
In all the fearful and self-righteous commotion of demon slaying, we so easily forget the interdependent relationship between the shadow and the light. As Carl Jung put it: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” In repressing or denying the darkness, we ultimately, betray the light.
The devil-slaying ritual of my youth was originally a catholic festival, in which Judas—the betrayer of Jesus—was burned.
There are said to be two versions of Judas’ death—one in which he repents and hangs himself, and the other in which his bloody entrails are spilled over a field by a murderous mob.
Reenacting the mob’s slaughter of the anti-Christ, century after century, was more appealing to the masses than identifying with deep repentance, for we slay the demon as an act of self-empowerment. Killing demons appeals to our sense of victimhood. In defeating evil, we temporarily release our fear of being attacked, or overcome by it. But, in doing so, we feed into the irony of becoming a killer ourselves, as a result of killing the killers.
An ancient tantric mantra states: “I’ll kill you in this life, and you kill me in the next life.” Ad infinitum! The Buddha warned that there is no end to the revolutions we may each take in this dizzying cycle of samsara unless we stop identifying with the swing of the angels vs. devils pendulum.
For we are both, and we are also neither.
Predictably, over the centuries, effigies of all types of “demons” began to emerge in the country of my youth, including ones that reflected the personal sentiments of the effigy-makers. This led to debates over who the “real” devils were. Presidents, for example, may be representations of the demoniac to some, but heroes to others. One person’s witch is another person’s midwife. Who is truly worthy of being burned at the stake? Or drowned in a lake?
The ancient Hindu text, the Ramayana depicts a demon named Ravana that was so ferocious he caused the whole Universe to scream. Taller than a skyscraper and bearing ten heads, Ravana was no match for the world’s most skilled armies. It took the arrows of the divinity Rama to finally decimate him.
Many of the ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts specifically revolve around our relationships to demons.
The earlier texts drip with detailed and bloody, demon-slaying accounts. For every age, or yuga, there is a corresponding set of demons, and specific Divine Avatars that slay them. It’s not until the later texts—which appear after the advent of the Buddha— that we read about befriending the demons, inviting them to dinner, or, as Chaitanya did in the 16th century, inviting them to sing and dance with us!
In the Bhakti Yoga tradition, the present age of Kali follows Buddha’s initiative to end slaughter, including the killing of one another in the name of demon slaying. Instead, as the great yogi Bhaktivinode Thakur wrote in his Sri Caitanya Siksamrta, the demoniac dwell within us. We contain both light and shadow.
Whether ten-headed monsters like Ravana, or horned devils stuffed with fireworks, the demons ultimately represent the myriad of self-sabotaging attitudes and perspectives we have about ourselves, and reality. When we feel overcome by these toxic influences, or anarthas, we compromise kindness and clarity, and fall prey to the divisiveness operative in the world. This divisiveness has manifested externally throughout the ages—and across cultures—in an endless myriad of “us” vs. “them” paradigms involving fleeting identity constructs, where the victim/victimizer, oppressed/oppressor, or divine/demoniac polarities are energized.
Yoga and meditation takes us to that point where the swing of the pendulum between light and dark begins to die down.
Instead of identifying with extremes, we seek integration by energizing the interconnectedness of the life we all share instead.
Here, we begin to realize that when light casts shadows, these shadows take on different forms for each of us, depending on the specific lenses of personal, or cultural beliefs we are viewing them through. Instead of getting caught in the dizzying strobe lights of this temporary world, we venture beyond the flickers of light and darkness, and unearth an alternative narrative, in which the demoniac are befriended instead of annihilated.
In his Yoga Sutra, Patanjali, offers the formula for conquering demons, and it doesn’t call for dramatic slayings, or fireworks. Instead, the devils of divisiveness in us are tamed through practicing kindness (maitri), compassion (karuna), gladness (mudita) and patience (upekshana), with ourselves. They say that then we’ll we be able to truly extend loving compassion to others.
When our own hearts can hold both light and darkness within them harmoniously, the whole Universe smiles, for it means that even the demons have been invited to the divine dance.
Catherine L. Schweig has practiced yoga in the Bhakti tradition since 1986. Her regular treks into nature and relationships with others are a valuable part of her spiritual journey. Passionate about inspiring women to honor their voices, in 2012 Catherine founded the Journey of the Heart, a women’s poetry blog through which emerged four anthologies, the latest titled GODDESS: When She Rules (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2018). Catherine is also the creator of the Vaishnavi Voices Poetry Project, the first poetry collection featuring the voices of contemporary women in the Bkakti tradition. As co-founder of The Secret Yoga Institute, with her life partner, Graham M. Schweig, Catherine designs yoga workshops and publishes in various magazines. Catherine and Graham live in Virginia with their cat, where they enjoy a vegan lifestyle and mentoring yoga practitioners. You may connect with Catherine on Facebook, email her or visit her website: catherineschweig.com
Editor: Dana Gornall
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