In the Bhagavad Gita (India’s “Song of God”), the recipient of the world’s holiest and most enduring motivational speech — and also a treatise on yoga, among other things — was not just an archer on the eve of war; he was a sort of “knight” by our own modern understanding. He had a chivalric code as a kshatriya (hereditary ruling, military class) prince. As a chariot-warrior, was by definition a sort of chevalier.Read More
Having spent half to two-thirds of his (fictionalized) life in forest-exile with his brothers, he learned as many spiritual lessons among the wisest sages as he did military lessons under his peerless martial arts guru. He also went on his own idiomatic quest for the weapons of heaven, following his own path, to prepare for the coming war he knew he and his brothers would have to fight.
He was also a devotee; a bhakta; of his friend Krishna, who he also knew (at times) to be the supreme power in the universe, behind all other powers, manifest in the world.
Fast forward to Medieval Europe.
The Arthurian tales spread far and wide in a spiritually corrupt place, where the priestly class has a monopoly on nominal salvation; no matter what the character or fidelity of the particular priest serving as intermediary. And the language of scripture, spoken at Mass (etc) was not even shared in the common tongue, but in the mostly by-then alien tongue of Latin.
This “sacred language” and “vulgar language” disconnect was much like that of India. The Sanskrit language of the Vedas, in India, was spoken by the priestly class of the Brahmins; like Latin, it was also somewhat guarded like a trade secret from the common people.
Knightly tales of questing — often, for the Grail; or else authentic romantic love — exploded in popularity. In the best of these tales, the essence of Christianity’s understated feminine compassions blended with the barely re-branded Celtic nature mysteries, and enchantment dramas. The search for submerged spiritual truth not mediated by hollow sacraments and professionalization of religion took on heroic tones.
There was a deeply resonant chord struck by the archetype of “the quest” as an individual’s own deliberately “off the beaten path” process of reaching toward enlightenment and internal expansion; and even true love, in a landscape where the church’s legal machinery often made authentic love literally punishable by death.
The knights in these stories were not just defenders of the weak and downtrodden (though they were that as well), they were proxies for their own inaccessible authenticities. As many scholars would point out, there was a direct inheritance of many of the Eastern motifs in these Grail Quest stories, whose kernels were one of the many treasures brought back after the Crusades. Many of the concerns were the same; where one can find enlightenment in the background of the orthodoxy’s foreground; where one can find sincere compassion for their fellow humans, in truly Christlike ways inexplicably rendered unavailable by Church doctrine, where one could find romantic love and true friendship, where one could reconnect with the natural wilds deemed “fallen” or otherwise exiled by civilization-building.
Fast forward again to stories of the knightly class of samurai in Japan, in similarly rigid land of fatally enforced codes of conduct, this time with a largely buddhist orthodoxy with subtextual flavor variations rooted in Shintoism. The specifically Zen-Buddhist ideas find root in a class of warriors who ride a razor-thin layer between life and death; whether their own, or the life and death they may be adjudicating on the spot; of their opponents, or even the lower orders over whom they helped govern and defend. The simple poetry of tea ceremonies and samurai poetry can be astonishingly valuable in its brevity and its near-silent ache. They found beauty in so volatile a life, in an environment whose political (and even natural) volatility was a constant.
Every once in a while — between service to different masters, for example — these Samurai knights would go through a period of “being ronin”, or masterless. This was considered a time of some amount of shame, to some surface-level estimations of the time; as it meant a samurai knight did not commit ritual suicide either for percieved failures of some kind, or to join their master in death.
Though my own suspicion is that many more samurai went ronin at one time or another than not, and to no fault of their own. Some of the texts from the time support this view. And its also my own suspicion that samurai who went in an out of a state of being “ronin” had a wisdom and spiritual rounding-out that others always kept at the table of one master may have missed out on; assuming their time of “ronin” didn’t include going for a spell of banditry.
As yet another personally interesting fast-forward: when Westerners met Jigoro Kano (the founder of Judo; a martial art whose technical ancestor is the samurai way of war). When they encountered Kano’s top-ranking students, they didn’t call them his athletes; they called them his knights. I don’t think I can call most of my martial arts peers “knights”. Kano was committed to Judo as a tool for spiritual enhancement, more than a sport. Something is getting lost in the sauce today, there.
I hardly need to mention that in our own time, all our children seem to go through a phase of fascination with the big screen’s “Jedi Knights”, and probably continue internalizing these ideas of a knightly class of protectors whose core identity is a spiritualized duty.
This is all a preamble. I’m trying to gesture at something we may be missing today. I’m not sure that police-men and military thumping the Bible or the Koran are inheritors of this way of life; and I’m not saying that to denigrate the Bible or The Koran. I’m equally not sure that Hindu Nationalists thumping the Ramayana or the Gita meet this role either. This is bigger than nation-states, and religions.
I’m talking about the individual knight who had a journey of ups and downs along the way. I’m talking about knights who had to wander in the wilderness for a while, either seeking out enlightenment or encountering it more or less naively, by accident. I’m talking about those knights whose honor-code of defending the weak was tested in the extreme; especially while they were in their own “weakness” of one kind or another. I’m talking about those knights who quested, either by being assigned a quest or formulating one of their own.
Terrance McKenna coined the term “archaic revival” as an impulse we should nurture to find a missing piece of our species’ potential, long in exile. And the missing piece he is gesturing at would serve a role of “yoga” (union, of the kind Krishna talks about in the Gita) without using that language. It would serve the role of authentic compassion, which somehow gets ritualized and lost in modern orthodoxies. It would serve to reconnect us with the Nature we’ve alienated ourselves from, in the way shamans attempt to reconnect us. It would serve the role of fulfilling our potential by reconnecting with inappropriately abandoned facets of our past. It requires us dislodging ourselves from the belly of whatever great machine has played Jonah’s whale for us, so that we may do good in the world.
And whatever archaic ideals come out of this would have to avert all the mistakes in backward-looking Nazism and other fascisms fall into, where they romance lost times that never were, and neurotically (and murderously) try to impose that false nostalgia on a complicated world, in an attempt to make it simpler.
I’m interested in that archaic revival, for the sake of good. I’m embracing whatever knighthood I’ve received along the way (and there have been one or two) and seeking out others. I’m interested in seeking out a fellowship of other similarly questing knights. I’m intent on reclaiming the insult “white knight” and ripping out all the codependent and chauvinistic guts out of it, for a more nuanced and less naive mode of helping others (and the larger world) to heal. I’m interested in the union of Krishna and Arjuna’s yoga, the compassionate grail of the Arthurians, and the time-frozen beauty of a haiku at a tea ceremony the night before a terrible battle — whatever terrible battle is inevitable for me, for you, for all of us.
To achieve this, I’ll need the poetry of all these traditions, and the meditative focus of the archer at his target. I’ll need the spiritualism to treat all these things as metaphors, and the literalism to bring them back as valuable and tangible boons for the rest of the world.
I’ll need my sword to be sharp, and my soul to grow.