Kundalini and the Modern Myth
Commentary on the Recent Work by Jeffrey J. Kripal
and its Relation to Aspects of Gopi Krishna’s Kundalini Thesis*
by Brian West
What could the paranormal, science fiction, and superhero comics, possibly have in common? And how is it that they might exude a strange but potentially meaningful congruence with aspects of Gopi Krishna’s thoughts about human evolution?
Hold onto your seats, the ride is about to get strange, real strange. Imagine the following in rapid succession, “an erotic transmission under a Tantric goddess in Calcutta, a magical conversion, a Goetic demon, a time transcending DNA snake, shiny silver anti-bodies from the fifth dimension, and a god electrocution in Kathmandu; conscious mythmaking,…occult supermen, imaginal insects, flying saucers, a new American Bible, and ancient astronauts;… a super-spectrum,…sex and violence become radioactive superheroes, and an evolutionary yoga; a morning of magicians, California mutants, Cold War psychic spies,…and a NASA astronaut’s yogic union in outer space;…Superman and Batman in Tantric Tibet, time loops; a summer of superpowers,…a sci-fi Gnostic,…and a divine humanity evolving itself backward and forward in time; an ancient Mesopotamian goddess showing up in a New York cabin, sunglass-wearing aliens in a bookstore, and a non-driving, Canadian tax evader bestowing secret teachings in a hotel room”
This seemingly bizarre kaleidoscope of images begins the final Chapter of Jeffrey J. Kripal’s recent book entitled Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics and the Paranormal. The chapter is entitled “Toward a Soul Sized Story” and attempts to communicate an idea of the human soul that incorporates most if not all of the seemingly bizarre phenomena enumerated above, all of which currently stand outside the reigning paradigms of modern science and its underlying materialist biases. In short Kripal’s book is a work concerned with those aspects of human experience that often appear fantastic and in some instances even paradoxical and impossible. Kripal’s prior work was a book entitled Authors of the Impossible, and it may very well be the case that, as he suggests, it is the impossible that authors much of contemporary pop-culture and us along with it.
Kundalini and Human Evolution: An Ongoing and Continuous Process
Why you may ask is this work relevant to the purposes of this blog post? Because it is a work about strange possibilities of human evolution and because it is a work infused with something rare and precious, namely a willingness to soberly consider outrageous possibilities and impossible claims and to find scattered amongst this often strange and bizarre terrain, pearls of insight and correspondences of meaning that resonate with many of the key ideas advanced by serious advocates of the premise that human evolution is an ongoing and continuous process.
Jeffrey J, Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Philosophy of Religious Thought and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston Texas. His first work of note was a rather controversial work entitled Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna. The book was derived from his Ph.D. dissertation on Ramakrishna at the University of Chicago, and advised by Wendy Doniger (the Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School). According to Kripal, he adopted a Freudian approach to uncover the connections between tantric and psychoanalytic hermeneutical traditions. In the preface, he writes that he was fascinated and interested in the relation between "human sexuality and mystical experience". He further explains that the controversy of the book amounts to that which is “always controversial about religion and charismatic religious figures: sex. In his case he explains, I was showing that there are profound metaphysical, psychological, and spiritual connections between the saint's eroticism and his mysticism”. Sound familiar yet?
Exploring Mystico-Erotic Connections
Not simply interested in sexuality per se, Kripal, was interested in the ways that human beings often experience 'God' or the divine in and through human sexuality. He further explains that he adopted the insights of the Hindu Tantra as his own and put them into deep dialogue with psychoanalysis in order to explore these mystico-erotic connections”.  Fast forward by five books and sixteen years, the research connected to his current title includes an excursion into the works of Pandit Gopi Krishna as well as into the writings of R.M. Bucke to name but two authors familiar to many of the readers of this newsletter.
Kripal is a “historian of religions, working in the field that most people would call comparative religion”. He studies and compares religions like other people study and compare political systems, novels or movies. More importantly he reads and interprets mystical literature, texts he explains, from around the world that express some fundamental but normally hidden connection between divinity and humanity. In this divine-human spirit, he explores the mythical themes and paranormal currents of American popular culture.
By mythical themes he means a set of tropes or story lines about the metamorphosis of the human form that are deeply indebted to the history of the religious imagination but have now taken on new scientific or parascientific forms in order to give shape to innumerable works of pulp fiction, science fiction, superhero comics, and metaphysical film. By paranormal currents Kripal means the real-life mind-over-matter experiences of artists and authors that often inspire and animate both stories and religious mythologies, rendering both mysteriously plausible and powerfully attractive. Kripal argues in essence that the popularity of particular forms of popular culture is due precisely to their paranormality. That is, the paranormal understood as the manifestation of the meaning and force of consciousness itself.
Modern Mythologies: Real-Life Paranormal Experiences
No doubt drawing upon some of the ideas expressed in Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Kripal’s prior work Authors of the Impossible, explored the “fantastic” structure of the paranormal, and the often paradoxical manner in which paranormal experiences often express themselves between and beyond linear, rational, and scientific ways of the left brain and the holistic, symbolic, and image based ways of the right brain.
Whereas Authors is described by Kripal as historical and theoretical, Mutants and Mystics was intended to be “experimental and illustrative” (literally, the book is populated with colorful comic and sci-fi illustrations by many of the artists Kripal’s book discusses) the book applies this model of the fantastic to different writers and artists as it traces out what Kripal calls the broad narrative or Super-Story that these fusions appear to be forming around us, in us and as us. He is attempting to show how these modern mythologies can be fruitfully read as cultural transformations of real-life paranormal experiences and further to articulate that there is no way to disentangle the very public pop-cultural products from these very private paranormal experiences. For Kripal, it is precisely this that makes them fantastic.
One of the dominant themes (what Kripal terms mythemes) organizing his latest work is the mytheme of metaphysical energy or “radiation”. Kripal’s idea of the paranormal as the secret source of the creative manifestations of forms of pop-culture, as the very secret and mysterious source of the fantastic forms of much modern cultural mythology (pulp-fiction, science fiction, super-hero comics etc.) deserves closer attention. It is an idea that is entirely congruent with an aspect of Gopi Krishna’s kundalini thesis. Kundalini (an occult and thus subtle and as yet undetectable energy) as the source of human creativity.
The Reproductive System is Reversible
Kripal observes that Krishna was very clear, occult energies, at once divine and dangerous, are the deepest metaphysical catalyst of both sexual desire and spiritual transcendence, he insisted on a deep link between sex and spirit. Hence his teachings that the reproductive system is reversible, and that its spinal streams of energy can be transformed into a kind of radiation that activates the cosmic portal (brahmarandhra) in the brain core. Kripal becomes excited by Krishna’s use of the term radiation commenting that –yes, he (Krishna) actually uses the term to describe the divine energy in man. This excitement is due to the correspondences of Krishna’s thought with Kripal’s scholarship.
The concept of radiation understood as metaphysical energy constitutes one of the major mythical themes (mythemes) that Kripal suggests, pervades much of modern pop culture as well as the history of religion and of mystical literature more generally. Kripal’s scholarship identifies dominant mythemes and he in essence argues that it is these dominant (yet largely secret and hidden i.e. Occult) themes that supply pop-culture with much of its substantive content and constitute the organizing ideas underpinning a vast number of pop-cultural narratives and by extension cultural mythologies.
The Mytheme of radiation or metaphysical energy, Kripal suggests, is the dominant occult theme underlying the image of kundalini as a sleeping serpent coiled up at the base of the spine. He notes that once aroused, the serpent power is understood to spiral up from the anal and genital centers through the stomach, heart, and throat regions into the third eye and core of the brain and then explode out the top of the skull through the crown chakra. This is the means by which the mystic realizes his or her true nature as an immortal energetic superconsciousness, Shakti and Shiva, Energy and Consciousness, now realized and erotically united as One.
All of this is relevant Kripal argues, to the ongoing evolution of the superhero within modern popular culture. He argues that the mytheme of radiation is informing the artistic renderings of modern pop-artists. It is one of the dominant themes underlying and informing many pop-culture narratives. There is not room here to deal explicitly with the concept of radiation as pop-cultural mytheme but the basic idea and parallels with aspects of Gopi Krishna’s thought can be illustrated by sketching a brief outline of the Phoenix character from Grant Morrison’s famous New X-Men comic book series. The Phoenix character is an omnipotent supergoddess who possesses the human body of Jean Grey in order to do things like blip out the entire universe for a second or effortlessly bend space and time to her whim. In terms of cosmic scope and power, Phoenix in her Marvel universe, has few, if any peers. Kripal goes on to note that in Morrison’s work the Phoenix consciousness accesses its human host through the so-called Crown Chakra port at the top of the skull. In other words Kripal goes on to say, the Phoenix consciousness manifests in Jean’s body through Tantric Yoga.
Kundalini: The Secret Mechanism of Evolution
Kripal further observes that throughout the evolution of the modern superhero comic, more and more superheroes begin to speak and act like Hindu or Buddhist mystics, (the mytheme of Orientation, literally “of the Orient”) and numerous figures (far too many to list here) are portrayed in the classic lotus posture of yoga. Figures like Jack Kirby’s Eternals, Sharkosh the Shaman in Conan the Barbarian, Wolverine, Phoenix, Doctor Manhattan, Aleister Crowley in Alan Moore’s Promethea, and Magneto all take on this classic meditating pose, often depicted with waves of metaphysical energy, plasma or fire emanating from their subtle superbodies.
Gopi Krishna is Kripal’s concrete historical example of this mytheme of metaphysical energy noting that what makes Krishna so interesting and relevant here are the very explicit ways he understood these occult energies as the secret force of evolution itself (radiation to mutation, again two of Kripal’s major mythemes). For Krishna, the kundalini was the evolutionary energy in man or the secret mechanism of evolution. Indeed Gopi Krishna described this energy as super intelligent and as living electricity that intends to transform our very flesh until we become veritable gods on earth (Divinization, again this is one of Kripal’s major mythemes explored in the book). These very occult themes form the basis and structure of many pop-culture products, the comic book and their movie adaptations to name but two.
Gopi Krishna further insisted that these evolutionary energies are the biological basis of genius, and that they can produce a whole host of supernormal capacities. These are the siddhis or superpowers of Indian yogic lore. How does the kundalini grant such things? By opening up the spinal channel and physically transforming the body-brain in order to make it a more translucent filter of the ocean of consciousness and energy that constitutes our true supernature. For Kripal this corresponds to a process whereby occult currents inform artistic products like the Phoenix consciousness as depicted in the Pop-culture world of Morrison’s New X-Men.
Mysticism is a Process Toward a New State of Being
The Ocean of Mind Gopi Krishna explains, is a boundless world of knowledge, embracing the present, past, and future, commanding all the sciences, philosophies, and arts ever known or that will be known in the ages to come, a formless, measureless ocean of wisdom from which, drop by drop, knowledge has filtered and will continue to filter into the human brain. Here Kripal cannot help but note correspondences between Gopi Krishna’s ideas and the idea of a ‘universal storehouse of meaning’ advanced by the influential science fiction editor Raymond A. Palmer. Kripal furthers the correspondences by recalling that it was a broken back, an accidentally opened spinal column that initiated Palmer into a world of paranormal powers and psychical experiences. As with Gopi Krishna’s evolutionary energy, Cosmic Mind could then filter in.  Palmer’s story however is the basis for another chapter in the book and can be evaluated on its own merits by interested readers.
The conclusion that Kripal draws from the example of Gopi Krishna is that he was a man that was in the Next Age X-Men mutant camp. His mysticism in short was a process of mutation toward a new and breathtakingly mysterious state of being. In essence he represents a physical manifestation of the types of hidden and occult energies that have been banished by much of our modern science to the artistic realms of myth and imagination, yet he is suggesting that these energies survive and take on new life, informing many of the key themes pervading the pulp and sci-fi fictions of our popular culture. These subtle energies then, recognized as a deep source of human creativity, evolve us in and through the very artistic mediums we use to bring our mind-forms into being. Perhaps rather than interiorizing these energies in and through our bodies, in effect experiencing their transformative powers from within, we are rather as a culture, psychologically conditioned to project the evolutionary energies and their corresponding processes outwardly, onto and into the forms of our creative and artistic expressions?
Occult Powers Are Not the Ultimate Goal
Over and above Mutants and Mystics exploration of the many fascinating currents linking mystical experience and modern pop-culture, there is a palpable tolerance and sympathetic affinity for works of apparent confounding impossibility imbedded within Kripal’s text. In addition to many other contemporary works, the postmodern visionary writings of Philip K. Dick are considered and are accorded recognition as a species of contemporary mystical literature. According to Kripal, Phil Dick understood paranormal powers as expressions of evolution, which progresses by actualizing latent powers within us.(the Mutation mytheme again). Dick recognizes however, that the ultimate goal of evolution is not occult powers. It is the realization of one’s own divinity, of which the superpowers are simply a natural expression. Dick further states that the purpose of evolution is to create an “isomorphism” between the cosmic Ground of being and the Divine Spark that exists in us as our deepest secret nature (again the theme of occult energy this time as our deepest nature). Kripal further notes that for Dick, the ultimate goal of evolution is the moment in which the separation between human and divine consciousness is abolished and God comes to know itself through the temporary terminal of a human brain. 
Dick’s work, is replete with evolutionary and mystical themes and it is these kinds of themes that Kripal argues, form the secret source of his and of many others creativity. This is all the more relevant when we consider that Dick had a number of strange mystical experiences in 1974 (he refers to these as 2-3-74 in his writings). Dick struggled to come to terms with these experiences for the remainder of his life spending much of the last eight years of his life consumed with writing his personal journal. This Tractates Cryptica Scriptura (Dick’s phrase), later became known as simply the Exegesis and is a personal journal of over 8000 pgs in which Dick pursues a dizzying quest for understanding the true nature and cause of his 2-3-74 experiences. Without giving too much away, Kripal’s writing exudes deep compassion, not only for Dick but more generally for the human desire to seek re-imaginings and impossible renderings of our own unfathomable natures. This reader could not help but absorb the impression that Kripal is a deeply moral man in search of deeply meaningful questions, not answers and it this very search that is the strength and beauty of the text.
Kripal describes his own mystical experiences encountered as a student in Calcutta and as such the fantastic encounters and sci-fi notions he describes in Mutants are hardly fictions for him. Although he recognizes that they are simultaneously also fictions. This interweave of fact and fiction, of the truth in the trick and the trick in the truth, is also a thread that runs throughout the book and points I think, towards a way of knowing that keeps the searching mind open to new ways of thinking about human experience and by implication, consciousness generally. What Kripal is claiming is a very real experience (although maybe not real in the sense we have come to culturally define it) and he has no doubt that this experience vibrates at the energetic core of his book. As he puts it, the damned thing is radioactive.
Occult Energies: Misunderstood Aspects of Consciousness
Charles Forte spent most of his adult life challenging the established orthodoxy of science and believed that it was out of the body of officially excluded data (data excluded because it defied the biases informing reigning scientific paradigms of the day) that new scientific insights would emerge. Forte further maintained that profoundly meaningful insights and worldview shattering truths about some of the profoundest paradoxes and seeming impossibilities confronting the human mind would emerge from this body of excluded data. Kripal has focused much of his most current scholarship upon those writers, artists and thinkers that do not shrink in the face of encounters with the extreme borders of our current worldview. His fascination with all things “impossible,” “fantastic,” and “mystical” communicates a deeper conviction, namely that paranormal experience really isn’t all that paranormal, perhaps not even all that out of the ordinary. Occult energies understood in this way may not turn out to be really all that occult, not really hidden at all, merely as yet undiscovered or simply misunderstood aspects of consciousness that we have yet to understand and to further evolve.
In closing, Kripal’s interpretations of the writings of Philip K. Dick provide some further context. Kripal characterizes Dick as a postmodern scholar of comparative mystical literature, suggesting that Dick understood himself to be a kind of gnostic comparativist, as seeing that the deepest truth of things are available to us in the history of religions, but that these deepest truths are also splintered up over thousands of miles and years. There are sparks and bits, for example, in Neoplatonism, Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Taoism, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Orphism, and so on, but no single system taken alone is true, hence, “none is to be accepted at the expense of all the others”. Rather, like the Soul or the Self, the truth must be recollected from its dispersal in history and culture. “This is my task” Dick declares, and one can’t help but get the impression that there may be something of this task at the secret source of Kripal’s scholarship.
*This article was originally titled "Mutants and Mystics; Science Fiction, Superhero Comics and the Paranormal"
About Brian West:
Brian West has had an ongoing interest in 'extraordinary' ideas concerning the future evolution of humanity and of their implications for the ethical development of persons and societies. Brian holds the suspicion that the extraordinariness of some and/or many of these ideas is only seeming, that is, to the human mind as it is presently constituted. Having worked in the legal field for many years he is further interested in questions related to the nature of law and of its application to human affairs. Brian lives with his wife and four children in Barrie, Ontario, and has a particular fondness for experiencing nature in the presence of his family.
 Kripal, Jeffrey, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics and the Paranormal. The University of Chicago Press 2011. Pgs. 329 & 330
 Atmajnanananda, Swami (August 1997). "Scandals, Cover-ups, and other imagined occurrences in the life of Ramakrishna: An examination of Jeffrey Kripal's Kali's child". International Journal of Hindu Studies (Netherlands: Springer) 1 (2): pp.401–420.
 Kripal, Jeffrey, Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna. 2d ed. Chicago University, 1998. Preface, p.xiv
 Kripal, Jeffrey, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics and the Paranormal. The University of Chicago Press 2011. Pgs. 1 & 2
 Ibid. pg. 2
 Ibid. pg, 171 Kripal is quoting from Gopi Krishna, Kundalini: The evolutionary Energy in Man (Berkley: Shambala, 1971/1967) & Gopi Krishna, The Biological Basis of Religion and Genius (New York: NC Press, 1971.
 Ibid. pg. 170
 Ibid. pg. 171
 Ibid. pg. 279
 Ibid. pg. 280
 Ibid. pg. 8