The 20th-century Japanese photographer Masehisa Fukase’s book of haunting photographs published as Karasu or Ravens reasserted a traditional view of ravens as symbol of darkness and death. Fukase’s photographs of ravens in various grains of black and white evoke at once a sense of unease, repulsion, pity, and despair — as intended. The 1980’s English translation of the work as The Solitude of Ravens further captured the sense of alienation, strangeness, the status of pariah, outcast, of deformity and repulsion.

In ancient Celtic and Norse mythology, the raven fits this symbolism. The ravens’ apparent maleficence derived from their habits as scavengers consuming carrion, especially on gory battlefields. In Irish mythology, the war-goddess Morrigan haunted the battlefields in the form of a raven. The war-drenched Norse similarly filled their mythology with ravens as devices. Though modern populaces have largely sanitized their witnessing of the horrors of war even while wars rage on, the symbolism of ravens lingers.

But ought not the raven’s alleged maleficence be attributable as much to the architects of war and not to opportune birds with an evolutionary niche? Are not eagles, like vultures, likewise scavengers? The presence of ravens anywhere intensifies the mystery of human behavior and the darkness inhabited by the unconscious mind.

In literary terms, Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem “The Raven” served to extend the macabre association of ravens with death. But Poe mingled death with the quest for wisdom and equanimity. The raven symbolized knowledge in ancient Greek culture, and the raven in the poet’s chamber alights on a bust of Athena, goddess of knowledge. Understanding the raven is to grasp an insight into existence.

In contrast, however, is the raven depicted in Western Christianity. In this tradition the raven is presented in a positive light, associated with saints. Here the raven’s submission to the will of God despite its disagreeable habits is an expression of redemption. The stories of ravens in Christian tradition indicate that however objectionable the behavior of any creature, it can ultimately pursue what is good. In doing so, the reader or listener cannot but admit the benignity of nature and creation.

Here are some depictions of ravens in Christian tradition:

In the Old Testament, ravens feed the prophet and hermit Elijah with “bread and meat” where there was no other source of sustenance.

In St. Jerome’s story of Anthony meeting the famous desert hermit Paul a raven is featured prominently. It fulfills God’s purpose as a sign of holiness. Paul greets his visitor thusly:

“Behold the man whom yon have sought with so much toil, his limbs decayed with age, his gray hairs unkempt. You see before you a man who were long will be dust. But love endures all things. Tell me therefore, I pray you, how fares the human race? Are new homes springing up in the ancient cities? What government directs the world? Are there still some remaining for the demons to carry away by their delusions?”

Thus conversing they noticed with wonder a raven which had settled on the bough of a tree, and was then flying gently down till it came and laid a whole loaf of bread before them. They were astonished, and when it had gone, “See,” said Paul, “the Lord truly loving, truly merciful, has sent us a meal. For the last sixty years I have always received half a loaf: but at your coming Christ has doubled his soldier’s rations.

Elijah fed by the Raven - Savoldo (15th cent.)

Anthony, Paul, and the raven - Velazquez

Anthony, Paul, and the raven - Isaac Fanous

St. Benedict and the raven
St. Benedict & the raven

According to tradition, a raven regularly visited St. Benedict of Nursia to receive a bit of bread. One day, Benedict was given poisoned bread by a jealous monk. He implored the raven to take it away and conceal it. The raven did so, not eating it, and returned shortly thereafter for its regular morsel.

Eisiedeln monastery coat of arms
Eisiedeln monastery coat of arms

The 9th century hermit St. Meinrad, who regularly fed ravens, was murdered by thieves. Ravens pursued the murderers into the forest, their loud caws alerting the villagers to come and apprehend the men. (The Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln, associated with Meinrad, used ravens in its coat of arms).

These Christian stories of ravens may not have reversed popular perceptions of ravens but have two virtues: 1) they point to a sense of benignity in creation, and 2) in each instance, ravens are associated positively with the solitary and with places of solitude.

How can the sense of benignity towards ravens exemplified by these tales outweigh the image of the raven associated with the oppression of war and destruction that is so intense in our consciousness, a restless despair, hopelessness, and unease?

Fukase precisely taps this uneasiness. It is not necessary to be on a battlefield to feel this way. Life is a battlefield as far as the subconscious is concerned. We only need a negative symbol to provoke the unease. The ravens in warfare, ancient or modern, provoke it. Even the ravens going about their lives, as Fukase shows.

Or do we dare go one step further? Is creation plagued by humans the same way that ravens plague our dreams? Solitude in Fukase is both the condition of ravens but also the projection of our uneasiness.

We cannot picture the hermit, regardless of tradition, turning his back on any creature. On the contrary, we can imagine the hermit, in solitude, identifying with the raven — shunned, provoking disgust, reduced to ignominy. The hermit stories strive to transcend our human fears, even as we acknowledge the entrenched causes of human misery emanating not from ravens but from the human heart.


How one treats the innocent, the simple, and the helpless reveals one’s character and moral aptitude. The historical hermit, deliberately shunning that which the world values most, becomes by default ignorant, innocent, simple, and helpless.

But the hermit is strong, persistent, conscious, and willful by worldly standards — more willful because of the status of calling, personality, and the vicissitudes of eremitism contrasting to the world.

This duality of characteristics makes the hermit capable of both being and identifying with the simple, yet capable of being and identifying with the motives of intelligence, spirituality, acculturation, harmony, equanimity — those virtues which the poor are often incapable of attaining or expressing in their ignorance, and which the powerful are equally incapable of in their stubbornness.

Thus the hermit partakes of two worlds, lives between two worlds. Or, rather, the hermit lives in neither world, fitting neither but thrown in between. The hermit culls the values of simplicity from the values of the one world (requiring a necessary education, sophistication, or spiritual sensitivity) but leaves off the instinctive dullness and torpid animality of the simple poor in their misery. (How often have many poor people said that they want to be rich, that they hate simplicity.)

Thus the hermit seizes upon the intellectual and cultural strengths of the powerful, the worldly-wise perspicacity of the glib and educated, the aptitude to deftly glide through complexities of daily life characteristic of the powerful, only shunning their coldness, their materiality, their inability to understand their own situation and that of others.

The hermit is burdened by this complexity of experiences, insights, reflections, decisions, motives — yet eventually distilling self and others into a functional simplicity. The hermit is a reduction in quantity, entanglements, obligations, compromises, expectations, and aspirations.

But the “reductionism” of the hermit is not a chopping off or plucking out — though most people need to be crudely radical in order to discipline themselves for life in society, in order to survive with any degree of integrity. It is a realization in the hermit born of observation, personality and life encounters.

The hermit is always a becoming, not quite through but never lacking contentment. Eremitism is a “beingness” never quite filled but always shaping and adjusting itself, always set aside from, disengaged from, anything that might identify itself too closely to him or her. Thus even in the discipline of religion or the questioning of philosophy, the hermit takes all the best, the richest, the most nuanced, but does not concede the core of self, of heart, to the structures contrived by man. Thus has the hermit always been looked upon suspiciously by authorities and by others who conform to them, for the very vocation of hermit threatens not only daily life and society but the premises of having to institutionalize spiritual and moral responses to society.

The hermit lives within two worlds or simultaneously on two ends of the spectrum (an impossible feat by worldly standards!) One end of the spectrum is perfect conformity and reproduction of what society mandates in consumption of food, appearance, thought, reading, viewing, thinking, environment. On the other end of the spectrum is dysfunction: madness, mental or physical illness, instability, lack of sustaining and redeeming abilities put to common use.

That this spectrum is false is not proven by anything in the world. Indeed, scientists, economists, psychotherapists, enforcers of power — all agree on the two poles of the spectrum and how everyone must inhabit one or the other. But throughout history, hermits have inhabited both — or neither. Only the hermit (and the mystic and the sage) show that the spectrum is false, that there is no context to its extremes, that nature is the flow between and around them, dissolving them.

The hermit looks beyond the creatures, even beyond himself or herself as one of the myriad creatures, to the context, to that which is the medium of life, energy, being — not the individual instance, which is a moment’s flesh, grass, froth on the water. The context reveals the useless efforts of those who cling to the poles of the spectrum, the poles they have themselves erected, the poles that they have been given or assigned and which they view as precious.

This context is what the Tao te ching or Lao-tzu calls the Way, as in chapter 4:

The way is empty, yet use will not drain it.
Deep, it is like the ancestor of the myriad creatures.

What do the worldly do, panicking in this emptiness, drowning in this fullness? The Way is alien to them and challenges both the turpitude of the poor and the sophistication of the rich. Neither wants to stand before it with open eyes. But the hermit responds to the difficulties of understanding the Way, pursuing the sage’s advice:

Blunt the sharpness;
Untangle the knots;
Soften the glare:
Let your wheels move only along old ruts.

The last line above is the D. C. Lau translation. Ursula LeGuin, in her transliterative method, puts it thus: “The way is the dust of the way” — we are merely following the sages, we cannot pretend to innovation; there is nothing new, yet what does the world constantly seek but the new.

The world is dark in the intensity of its savagery and in the parsimoniousness of its contentments. But at least, cry the worldly, there is something palpable, something they can embrace to drain like a cup and then smash to the earth. That is the conviction of the despairing, whether what they want is political power or just a moment of pleasure. They do not see what is before them.

Darkly visible, it [the Way] seems as if it were there.

Not that the hermit (or mystic, or sage) presumes to have grasped the Way, tamed it, controlled it, deciphered its secrets. But this very elusiveness contrasts with the arrogant certainty of the worldly, their certainty, at any rate, of this moment’s ambition and the next moment’s goal. But there is little more beyond that, and the next moment was all that they planned for. The hermit does not presume to grasp the next moment, or the one after, for the next moment is only part of the continuum that is the whole, that is the Way. And not grasping it definitively, how can it be circumscribed by words, gestures, and desires?

I know not whose progeny it is.
It images the progenitor of the all things.

Lau says God and LeGuin says “the gods.” We assume that something begets reality, but once in the continuum, we are without beginning or end, only wondering where the way came from, or if it is the same as the creature who asks the question.

Gandhi’s Satyagraha

Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha has many applications to the interests of eremitism.

But Satyagraha must be understood in the intrinsic sense that Gandhi himself conceived of it — he first coined the word and the idea in South Africa, later applying it to the situation in India. Even Gandhi himself went beyond its activist component in configuring his concept.

Satyagraha has been variously understood, as even Gandhi himself realized. It was identified as passive resistance and as non-violent resistance. Gandhi objected to the notion of passivity and its connotation of weakness and a lack of conscious effort. Similarly, the idea of resistance suggested an element of aggressiveness that contradicted non-violence. Gandhi preferred “non-cooperation” because it was both conscious effort and a sense of disengagement from evil that was to be achieved through spiritual and moral force, an inner force cultivated by the individual.

The concept of civil disobedience Gandhi derived in part from Thoreau; the articulation of non-violence was derived in part from Tolstoy. Gandhi’s synthesis with Hindu thought — also influenced by the Christian Gospels, Jainism, and Buddhism — was the application of what he called “soul-force” or “truth-force.” (The Sanskrit word sat means “truth”.) Gandhi believed that the fullest expression of Satyagraha was capable of revolutionizing society, let alone the individual, as an essential ethics.

Carried out to its utmost, Satyagraha is independent of pecuniary or other material assistance, certainly, even in its elementary form, of physical force or violence. Indeed, violence is the negation of this great spiritual force, which can only be cultivated or wielded by those who will entirely eschew violence. … Only those who realize that there is something in man which is superior to the brute nature in him … can effectively be Satyagrahas.

This minimal (to the perennial view) renunciation of violence represents the first renunciation of both society’s ways and the ways of human instinct. But Gandhi goes much further.

The use of this force requires the adoption of poverty, in the sense that we must be indifferent whether we have the wherewithal to feed or clothe ourselves.

This passage is reminiscent of the Gospel injunction about not worrying how we are to clothe ourselves or what we are to eat, witnessing the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. For Gandhi, as for the historical Jesus, the goal of the sages’ work is to tap the spiritual power of community and a trust in like-minded others to assist and ally themselves together in mutual aid. Historically, the ancient monasteries of all creeds have maintained this principle as a structural foundation. Secular ideologies professing the same or similar goals have often fallen short because of the lack of a spiritual element in their structure, and in the minds of adherents. To extend a spiritual mindset to the laity and the masses, ambitious as such a project was, reflected Gandhi’s pure-hearted application of the goals of the historical Jesus, a goal ironically at odds with institutional Christianity, as he so often (but politely) pointed out.

Gandhi identified eleven vows for those who would reside at his Sabarmati ashram as representative Satyagrahi:

  • Truth
  • non-violence
  • non-possession
  • chastity
  • fearlessness
  • control of the palate
  • Non-stealing
  • bread-labor
  • religious equality
  • anti-untouchability
  • swadeshi (use of locally-produced)

Gandhi conceives of Truth as primary among the virtues, its pursuit representing not abstract knowledge or philosophizing but truthfulness in every aspect of life, such that one’s life is an emblem of what it would mean to follow God — whatever God is considered by the individual. Always the individual is engaged to pursue this truth in every dimension of daily life. Everything falls into place once this effort is foremost, realized by what the Bhagavad Gita calls abhyasa (single-mindedness) and vairagya (indifference to all other interests in life). Gandhi does not want an ability to reason so much as an adherence to a path that, once in practice, yields individual fruits on many varying kinds, depending on personality and potential.

The pursuit of Truth, in setting all behaviors right, may involve self-suffering. Gandhi calls these tapas, literally “austerities,” historical undergone voluntarily by those who would become more spiritual. Hence the pursuit of truth means anticipating self-discipline, even to the point of suffering. By anticipating suffering, the individual can prepare to meet it with strength and selflessness.

“The pursuit of Truth is true bhakti (devotion),” wrote Gandhi. Although the Hindu path of devotion is usually distinguished from other forms — jnana (intellectual), kriya and hatha (yoga), karma (selfless work), raja (synthesis), bhakti is ususally identified with outer devotion in chant, rites, and external practices such as puja, prayer, and worship. But Gandhi here takes this externality of traditional bhakti and seeks to transform it to an externality of ethical strength and moral fortitude exemplified by the actions of Satyagraha. Thus, perhaps, the attitude of devotion in the Satyagraha was the new synthesis traditionally reserved to the intellectual brahmins. Like Gandhi’s condemnation of untouchability — a most direct confrontation with the old traditions of Hinduism and Indian society — the new notion of Satyagraha was a revolutionary one.

Finally, Gandhi identifies the path of daily life lived in the pursuit of Truth with the virtue of refraining from violence or ahimsa (doing no harm). Where ahimsa may have originated in the restraint of ancient animal sacrifice, and adopted the Jain view of non-violence to sentient beings, Gandhi characteristically went beyond.

Ahimsa is not the crude thing it has been made to appear. Not to hurt any living thing is no doubt a part of ahimsa. But it is its least expression. The principle of ahimsa is hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by wishing ill to anybody. It is also violated by our holding on to what the world needs. … Satyagraha excludes the use of violence in any shape or form, whether in thought, speech, or deed.

“What the world needs” should be studied in order to distinguish for ourselves what is really needful.

The other aspects of what Gandhi expected of a Satyagraha are not unusual in considering religious and ascetic groups and individuals. That they should have a high level of self-discipline in body, mind, and spirit for lay people was a striking concept. But the scale of expectation was not entirely dependent on private actions. Gandhi’s directives concerning social action — fasting, picketing, visiting jails, confronting violence, etc. — were unprecedented, as was the soul-force driving his activism. Wrote Gandhi: “I am making an experiment in ahimsa on a scale perhaps unknown in history.”

It is for the aspirant to simplicity and wisdom to find the essential points in Gandhi’s beliefs and practices that can be applied to the life path. In our modern era, the traditional directives combine with others to have new relevance, such as non-possession, labor, and use of what is locally produced (localvore).