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The Vision of Resh Shaprudhi

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S: the vision of resh shaprudhi dorchen

FC: the vision of resh shaprudhi | edited by jeffrey dorchen

1: Resh Shaprudhi was a Jewish artist born in India. In 1935 he traveled to Paris to assist in curating a retrospective of the paintings of Abanindranath Tagore. After the exhibition, Shaprudhi found work and stayed on in France. In 1941 he was arrested by the Vichy police and confined in the Royal Saltworks detention camp. Early in 1944 authorities learned he was a Jew and deported him to Auschwitz. Three months later he escaped during a work detail which turned into a massacre. The other workers on the detail were all killed. Shaprudhi barely escaped execution, then also avoided being inadvertently incinerated with the corpses.

2: That night, in a mystical vision, he was transported by an angel to the afterlife realms of both Judaism and Hinduism. What he learned there about the Heavens and their limited ability to intervene in Earthly events defined the artistic and spiritual directions of the rest of his life. In art and writing, Shaprudhi unified Judaism and Hinduism in a private religion he called "Ganapathiyehudism." Key to bridging the divide between the overtly image-abundant Hinduism and the anti-idolatrous Judaism were the characters of elephant-headed Lord Ganesh and his mouse devotee, Mushak. Fire also played a central role: fire as the god Agni, fire in the furnaces of the Auschwitz crematoria, fire as a transformational principle of destruction and rebirth, as the medium of sacrifice, and as an aspect of sacred rituals in both of Shaprudhi's source religions. After the war he moved to London, where he met Reva Kolozanci, a Hungarian refugee. They moved to the United States together in 1948. Shaprudhi continued to make his art in his basement studio in suburban Detroit. It has never been exhibited. Resh Shaprudhi's work, visual and literary, was entrusted to me after his death by self-immolation in 1974.

4: I woke up when I felt a loud, deep thud that made me think of a fat man falling from a great height onto a featherbed. I raised myself up, confused, not knowing where I was. There was curling eddies of flame and sparks some yards down the embankment, and then I remembered that cairn of concrete rubble with the corpses inside, and thought about how I was not one of those corpses, which seemed somewhat unbelievable to me. I saw a beer bottle catch the light of the fire as it was flung from the side of the embankment, and I heard it break... ...Then I wished I also was going up in smoke, like those corpses in that burning cairn. Like vessels in a kiln. A forgotten kiln. The potter had died, she lay murdered in a doorway that led to a garden, and the pottery inside was being ruined, neglected and blackening, shattering and turning to dust. I wanted to rise with that smoke up to the empty sky, because the boundary between that moment and the future was something I didn’t want to cross... ...Then I perceived the gray outlines of a thing. I thought it might be a water tower in the distance, and that my eyes were becoming accustomed to the dark. But its delineations grew slowly clearer and clearer, and its aspect brighter and brighter, until before me resolved a huge creature of glowing ice. It had a beautiful human face, and also an insect face, and the face of an ape, and the face of a horse. It was armored in myriad scales of ice, each one a mile wide. It was, in its segmentation and plating, machine-like, but it pulsed with life, and its hearts were plainly visible through its ice breastplate... ...We ascended to the premiere etage of that heavenly edifice, but we were not to alight there... I heard prayers, echoing from far off. But rather, they had been spoken in the past, and the congregation had departed, while the prayer vestiges were still blowing in their tatters within that vastness, deteriorating thread by thread but persisting beyond infinitesimal reduction. As if the mouth of the place had been stuffed with a clump of cat fur, which had been spat out, but the hairs could never be completely cleared from the back of its throat, there always would be a few more... ...No, I was mistaken. Those were not the echoes of prayers spoken in the past. Those were the prayers themselves. They trod round and round, repeating themselves, trees falling in a forest without an ear to hear them, or a type of mathematics fallen into disuse.

6: Then we rose to the third level, which was a vastness unlike any structure I had ever seen. Here were gargantuan chains of gold and silver, and counterweights, pullies, gears, axles, crankshafts, all gold and silver mechanisms, arranged according to their functions, whatever those might be, in throngs one behind another, ranged in the walls and up into the ceiling of that vastness, into cog teeth and sprockets interlocking, crowding in ranks shrinking into a distance of shadows. On the floor of that vastness, in puddles of dirty water and grease, lay old cigarette and cigar ends, broken bottles, nut shells, chicken bones, coal ash, egg shells, and street refuse of every type. And above was a high vault, higher above the floor than the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Metatron explained that these were the vaults where the sun and moon had gone in and out through the days, months and years. They were the hangars for those celestial orbs. And all those gears, shafts, and myriad mechanisms had been the vast intricate clockworkings of all the heavens. He showed me the ecliptic of the sun's passage through the year, it was a golden rail, but bearded all over with stalactites of lime, accumulated via water dripping from several sources somewhere above, and the moon's rail also was there, only it was a silver wire, and that wire was blue and black now with age. And there were wires also for the other planets, of materials appropriate to each, and their lusters were also muted beneath the colors of their aging. And there were filaments for all the stars, but now those filaments dangled from a branching apparatus of rods on every kind of hinge, and that whole machine was abandoned. I wondered if that signified I had outlived the material universe on my journey from that riverbank to the heavens. But Metatron assured me such was not the case, but rather that the sun and all the other bodies still existed and moved about the sky in the manner with which I was familiar. "But why are these clockworkings abandoned? How do the spheres –" but I stopped myself, because I knew the answer. "How do they move?" Metatron asked in my lieu. "But, of course, you know how they move. They move in accordance with gravitational principles described by Newton and other astronomers and revised by Einstein." His voice, or rather his voices, for they were like a chorus, betrayed a sardonic tone, and then the angel sighed, and then he spoke again: "Copernicus was first. He kicked the very sun from its rail. From then on the mechanism was kaput. Or became more and more kaput, as distances and celestial motion were described with ever greater accuracy by human astronomers. The machinery began to make more frequent and louder and more unusual noises daily. And it shimmied worse every day.

7: Several times a day, a loud straining of metal would be heard, and clangs and creakings, and then a loud snap, and bolts and nuts and washers and cotter pins and brackets would clatter from somewhere above, down into the works, and one could hear them being crushed in the teeth of gears, or the scraping sound as they sheared away bits of material from deep within the apparatus, compromising its integrity. The celestia were in constant rebellion against restriction to their rails and filaments; when the integrity of the materials had finally been compromised, and that machinery at last accepted defeat, they flew off in all directions like beads from a snapped rosary. They are still moving out into the farthest reaches of the firmament..." ...Still Metatron carried me upward... ...I saw throngs walking through those streets as inhabitants of a shadow city. They looked to my poor eyes like a parade of black triangles. I heard a soft clatter as of the ribs of broken umbrellas, or rather that sound multiplied by ranks and ranks, and in an imprecise unison, like demoralized armies marching with broken parasols of canvas and bone. Those were seraphim and other angels, Metatron told me. I was disturbed by how somber they were. But Metatron told me they were quite content. Angels, he told me, can adapt their emotions to what their hearts find available in the environment. So the angels who descended to Earth in the world’s early days, and found there women to lust after, were content to pursue and mate with those objects of desire. “Now the angels have only this palatial city. There is no work for them to do. They no longer sing, ‘Holy, Holy,’ at the appointed hours. They no longer winch the celestial orbs in and out, nor kindle the stars. They are unemployed, so they walk the streets. Sometimes a group of them will sit down together and play a card game for a while. Some of them will talk about the old days, or gossip about who-knows-what monotony, but without nostalgia. Many have their Nephilim whelps living with them now – giants they produced coupling with the women of the Earth. Those Nephilim go hungry, except for beer and cigars and the occasional egg or sausage. Beer and cigars are found everywhere in the palace city, in vaults and closets, dumbwaiter shafts and niches, in corners of rooms and under foundations. The supply is inexhaustible..." ...And then I could make out the coals of lit cigars, glowing and fading, and saw that many angels and Nephilim were sitting on the edge of that level of the Heavenly edifice, with their feet dangling over, the way children on the edge of a fountain dangle their feet in the water...

8: ...In any case, it was Airavat who interested me. In relation to that animal and the idea of binding, I thought of one version of the creation of Lord Ganesh. In searching for a head to replace the one he has severed from his son in a petty argument, Lord Shankar finds Airavat asleep, lying north to south. Shankar removes Airavat’s head and binds it to Ganesh’s body, thereby bringing the boy back to life as well as supplying a mythological explanation for the zoomorphism of that deva. Doing so, Shankar placates his wife Parvati who, in her anger at losing her son, has set loose her shaktis against the world. So, by binding Airavat’s head to the body of Ganesh, Shankar saves the universe from destruction. Metatron said, “Your thoughts are of matters found in no midrash I have ever heard expounded. Are you overcome with shigayon, like King David when he sang his psalms? Are you composing a song?” I told him that, for me, this journey was all one vision. If I was insane, then certainly, while being borne through realms beyond space and time, the cooking-up of a tale in the fever of it all must be the least of my worries. How much reality lay in my being carried by an angel of ice and fire? That was more significant. “Being that same angel myself, I find that part easiest to swallow,” said Metatron. That flippant response from Metatron irked me, and questions began cascading in my mind. By what kind of thing had I been abducted?... But added to that the overall mediocrity of that edifice of Heavenly Palaces – if that indeed was what it was – the rundown condition of the place, this kind of Ash Can School of divine mise en scene, and it was like the sad remnants of a prince’s castle, a prince who has entered the final stage of syphilis, whose coffers have dried up, and who has sent his drunk nephew to take you on a tour of the place. Metatron said, “Your impatience with the quality of this tour, while understandable, would best be laid aside for the moment. You wished to follow the smoke of your fellow prisoners as it rose away from the Earth – and there it is, above us.” And I saw, looking in the direction the angel indicated, the tail end of a serpent of vapor, curling and flickering as it passed beyond sight. I remembered the situation I'd been in when Metatron appeared to me, while I knelt in the mud and brush on the riverbank, watching the flames licking from the cairn, and my fear of what would happen next, now that I had escaped the lager.

9: It struck me then that I was more than likely still on that riverbank, hallucinating and near death. Or worse, that I was hallucinating but would eventually come to. I knew I was surely no Enoch, and that my story would not end with my transfiguration into an angel. But had I thought I was Noah or Lot, chosen to be spared sharing in my generation’s catastrophe? I was ashamed to realize I had begun to assign a bit of meaning to my journey. I should have known it would be thus: empty of meaning. And then I was overwhelmed with sorrow and terror, which my mind immediately countered with that bestial resistance to consciousness one is reduced to in the lager. I could feel my soul contract into a hidden place, like a worm poked at with a match. My mind was like a stone in my head. Metatron turned his human face to me again, and again the pistons and servos rained their frosty mist down upon me. But now I looked at him, in all his glacial and volcanic majesty, and saw in his face only the impotence and meaninglessness of most things back on Earth. Bread was for eating, water for drinking, there was never enough of either, and the rest of the world was a desert of cruelty and witless pain. The world had turned its blank face toward me in the lager, and that angel’s face was just the same. I sat in the hand of that angel, staring blankly ahead. Something like night was falling. This was the fifth level. It seemed a total vacuum. Metatron had turned his faces away from me, and our ascent progressed, or rather continued, in silence. Nevertheless, information was communicated to me by some method or other: There are four letters, four locations in the Holy Name, from which ten numbers arise. These are the ten Sepharoth. They are the conduits of creation, beginning at the locus of the Creator Himself, and passing the baton of that energy one to another, each expressing an aspect of creation, from the most abstract to the least... But that drama is all academic now. There is no actual energy in the system anymore. It is a dumb-show performed by invisible players on an unilluminated stage. The darkness on that level is inhabited by invisible gestures of enormous complexity, a mathematics underlying all of existence, but separated from it. I understood that, like the ghostly prayers I had heard on the second level, though without the sense of betrayal, or indeed any emotional residue whatever, the Sepharoth expressed nothing to anyone now. They themselves were unconscious of what they were doing. They possessed no more awareness than does a chemical reaction, a crystal lattice assembling in a void.

10: Such existential farce was perhaps the only thing I could have perceived at that moment that would not have hardened my heart all the more. It was a respite of a certain kind. A calm overtook me in that insensible abyss.

11: "They fasted for three days and nights, and the Spirit of Idolatry came out of the Holy of Holies as a lion of fire." -- Babylonian Talmud | "As the doorkeeper [dvarapala], Ganesa represents the dangerous transition from the profane world to the inner sacred enclosure. The doorkeeper is caught in the middle. He is destined to be mutilated and defeated. But the fate of the doorkeeper is double. He may suffer separation of head from body, but he also experiences union with God." --Paul B. Courtright, Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings

12: "From the day of the destruction of the Temple, all gates to heaven have been closed, but the gates of tears have not been closed." --The Zohar (Gershom Scholem trans.)

13: If only I could become vapor and disappear, I wouldn't have minded the passage of time. But soon my body would begin nagging me to do things for it. It would force me to help it survive, to ease its pains and hungers and petty discomforts and fears. I would be back, scrambling like a rat, in the hell of life. Resh Shaprudhi, The Yehudi Deep | Even without preparation for the pyre, they merge into flame. There is a Person who is other than human. He leads them on to Brahman. Those who go that way need never be reborn. Chandogya Upanishad | Ganesh's unconventional form and actions are necessary to dislodge the soul from the dead person. Robert L. Brown in Ganesh, Studies of an Asian God | The fire of the Lord descends and consumes the burnt offerings. I Kings, 18:38 | Truly, Death is a Fire. Rig Veda

14: Only in Maharashtra is the lintel of the front door of a house or of a temple known as Ganeshpatti – "the plank or strip of Ganesh." A Ganesh image is usually carved or painted on the lintel. This feature of household architecture is also visible in neighbouring Gujarat, besides Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, but the expression Ganeshpatti is not familiar there. --B. V. Shetti, in Ganesh the Benevolent, P. Pal ed., p 13 The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are. When he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you. --Exodus

16: They rose up, a cloud of gray corpses, like the clouds of gray smoke that billowed from the Krema. And their emaciated spirits collected on the outside of the crystal sphere of the heaven like a film of soot, and the gods and saints in the heaven could not see out. The accretion of smoky Jewish spirits on the sphere of the heaven cast a gloom over all within. The eyes of the Jewish souls lay dull and frozen under heavy lids, and their mouths hung open like corpses that seem somehow to understand they are void of life. Slack mouths from which life's vapor had seeped. It was as if the heaven were buried under a pile of dead. The accumulation of dormant souls was so dense that there was not even space enough for half a star's twinkle to get through. They stuck to the sphere of the heaven with the dead weight of mucusy slugs. They were souls defiled, robbed of dignity and life, and flung from the ravaged earth: sodden, soiled rags... ...The sage Vyasa had thought about the circumstance and offered the following explanation: "The Jews cannot enter our Heaven because they cannot propitiate Ganesh, the guardian of the Heaven's gate. And for the same reason Ganesh's hands are tied insofar as helping guide them elsewhere to their own heaven. Then why do they come here? "Why do the spirits of the Jewish dead come to the Heaven which they cannot enter? It is because up to the moment of their deaths they are living in the very manner of the most holy beings in the Hindu worlds. They are bereft of their earthly belongings, they starve like the most holy ascetic, and they are burned in the tapas of Agni." "Yes, the saddhu relinquishes his property by choice. He knows in a sense what to expect and why he has put himself at the mercy of the world. The Jew in Auschwitz has had his worldly attachments capriciously ripped from him without his consent and has been placed at the mercy of an especially cruel zone of existence. How much more painfully then, in the nihilism of his confusion, does he feel the heat of asceticism's tapas?

17: To him it is a reasonless trial, cleansing nothing, meaning nothing - a homeless, senseless misery. A forced sacrifice in return for the expectation only of oblivion. “A more perfect ascetic could never be found. But the favor he accumulates thereby has no subject. It is like a ticket to a show, but what show is not specified on the ticket, and in any case the holder does not know he has the ticket in his pocket. He has won the ticket in a game he did not even realize he was playing. Now he finds himself wandering aimlessly around the theater district, and we are like the theater managers who would each gladly let him in to see our show if he would merely step up to our door and present the proper ticket. “Now imagine swarms of such unwitting ticketholders clogging the streets of the theater district, and that is the situation we have on our hands.”

18: BELIEF It is not necessary to believe in Yehudaganapati. He will release the souls of the oppressed whether they believe in him or not. Mushak, his vahana, has made the offering in exchange for this boon for the benefit of all. Yehudaganapati will release any soul from any lake of fire it has been cast into by vengeful gods or men. It is not necessary to believe in this boon to receive it. Truly, it is better not to believe it, to avoid the temporal wrath of jealous gods and their priests. "Upamidrash" of Resh Shaprudhi

19: So there were demons there, and sybils, genii, and Sarah and Ruth and our mother Rachel, and many women, even Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, in addition to the Patriarchs and kings and the male sages. There were even Arabs, Persians, Nubians and Ethiopians, Far East Orientals, Indians, Amazons and Greeks there. Poets, artists and composers, including Shakespeare, Basho, and Aba Tagore were there. Sarah Bernhardt was there, and several other actors. And I asked my companion, whose field of warm electromagnetism I could feel at my side, by what virtue of those actors had they been allowed in? And a fat sage elsewhere in the room laughed when he heard that... ...Those demons and women and men ate and drank as they wove discrepancies into wisdoms that were then piled in foggy drifts along the walls. At that time I saw the Torah. She was on her back, spread out naked upon the table. The fruits the pilpul were eating were being ripped right out of her flesh. Emerald plums, amethyst figs, topaz bananas, were lobes amputated from the letters across her belly and legs and chest, and the fiery yellow currants were plucked from the flames flickering from the tips of those letters. And the juice and spittle and music and light that flew from the lips of oration wound in currents through her pores, stitching her rent flesh back together. And no sooner was one wound mended than another was rent. Her face was so engorged with pain and pleasure, if those words had any meaning in that place, that the eye could not fix upon it. Her contorting features doubled and trebled over her face like transparencies shuffled before a trembling veil of radiation. And the heat generated by that engine of her pain and ecstasy, that heat perhaps was the presence of the Lord, I thought: the Shekhina. Or it was what the Shekhina had become, in place of what she had been.

20: She had been the Holy Presence among the Jews. But she had been drained from Earth as the Jews grew less and less holy with each new generation – so the story goes. She had been smuggled away ounce by ounce into that celestial orgy of intellect and gourmandizing. And there was the flaw in the whole mechanism of the world, I thought. Because, if my thinking on that point was accurate, then those who needed the Shekhina most were exactly those who were least able to persuade her to linger with them. The less holy the world became, the more it needed her, and the less able it was to hang on to her, and the more impoverished of that presence it became. And therefore the mechanics of the Covenant were no different than those of the capitalist economy, or the Darwinian wilderness, or the social cliques of beautiful people. And I thought to myself, at one time I would have expected better from the divine.

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  • By: Jeffrey D.
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  • Title: The Vision of Resh Shaprudhi
  • An introduction to the art, writing, and life of a Jewish artist from India caught up in the events of the Holocaust.
  • Tags: holocaust, hinduism, religion, judaism, art, Iconography
  • Published: almost 8 years ago