Orientation according to the sun and the stars
Polar and solar modes
In the Chinese tradition, the Principle, at the source of all cosmic manifestation, is polarized into the fundamental complement between Heaven and Earth. Heaven, associated with the luminous side, to clearness, is yang compared to Earth, linked to the dark side, to obscurity, which is yin.
If the same principle is applied to compass points, South and East are yang, relative to North and West, which are considered as yin.
As son of Heaven and Earth, the “Primordial being” possessed all the richness of human nature possibilities, which were fully developed. He was perfectly balanced with respect to yin and yang: yin towards the Principle generating the whole manifestation and yang regarding the Cosmos. Therefore, turning in the direction of his complement, yin or North, he initiated the descent from yang to yin, from Heaven to Earth.
In the Northern hemisphere, this orientation is called polar. Indeed, the observer facing North, which is the projection of the Northern Celestial Pole on the horizon alongside the meridian, also looked in the direction of the pole star. As the apparent fixed apogee of the sky, it symbolizes the perfect centred Being. Such a mode may be found, particularly, within the Islamic tradition.
The being, in the ages that followed, became more son of the Earth than Heaven and its possibilities remained potential. Having become yin regarding the Cosmos, he looked for his missing complement, which is yang, and came back up the ascending way from yin to yang, from Earth to Heaven. So, in order to restore his lost balance, he was facing South, which means the sun at the meridian, at its highest daily position in the sky. Such an orientation, obviously called solar, can be found, among others, within the Chinese tradition.
The Being, adopting the polar mode and facing North (yin), usually gave (but not always) the preference to the right or East (yang) to keep his own balance.
The ordinary man following the solar mode turned towards South (yang) and normally displayed (but not always) a preference regarding left or East (yang) in order to restore his lost balance.
Attaching importance to right or left within both modes ended in giving the pre-eminence to East considered as the luminous side compared to West treated as the dark side. This is in complete agreement with the general analogy which states that Earth should be a reverse image of Heaven as in a mirror. Consequently, right for solar mode corresponds to left for polar mode:
For more details on the polar and solar modes, consult the articles respectively devoted to the Islamic and Chinese traditions.
The gates of access
The Gate indicates an access to a different domain, another world even if it remains closed. In the polar mode, the human being will get access to the direct ascending way in direction of the North Celestial Pole through a unique gate whereas, in the solar mode, he will generally have to pass through two gates to reach the same pole.
Indeed, the ordinary being, on the ascending way from Earth to Heaven and facing South, discovers that the apparent sun orbit or ecliptic moves towards the North Celestial Pole between Winter and Summer solstices and in direction of the South Celestial Pole between Summer and Winter solstices. He could therefore either continue his path on the ascending way towards North or regress alongside the descending way in direction of South (See the above diagram).
In the traditional Hindu form, another solar mode example, the ascending phase is related to the “devayâna”, path of the Gods, and the descending phase to the “pitriyâna”, path of the ancestors or beings of a former cycle. This is in full agreement with the “Bhagavadgita”, which states: “fire, light, day, increasing moon, ascent semester of the sun towards north” are the luminous signs leading to Brahma; “smoke, night, decreasing moon, descent semester of the sun towards south” are the dark signs of the way back to the manifestation world. The gate of the Gods opens the “devayâna” and is naturally associated with the beginning of the ascending phase or Winter solstice. The gate of mortals gives access to the “pitriyâna”, and coincides with the Summer solstice, starting point of the descending phase.
The being who has not reached the fullness of the human possibilities will not continue towards the supra-human states. He will have to go through other human manifestation states and take the descending path or the gate of mortals opened onto these states and closed to superior states. Having achieved the human fullness, he will pass the gate of the Gods and follow the ascending path to definitely leave the human manifestation world and get access to the supra-human or spiritual states.
In the Hindu, Biblical and Celtic traditions, the orientation is facing rising sun, which means East. As mentioned before, the orbit of the apparent move of the sun on the celestial sphere glides daily towards North between Winter and Summer solstices and in direction of South between Summer and Winter solstices. Consequently, the ecliptic intersects the horizon at two points associated with sunrise at east and sunset at west, which also move along the horizon.
Now, at Winter solstice, the sun rises in direction of Southeast direction and sets towards Southwest. At Summer solstice, it rises Northeast and sets Northwest. Therefore, the sunrise moves between Southeast and Northeast during its ascending phase. Conversely, it goes from Northeast to Southeast alongside its descending phase. So, the gate of the Gods may be associated with sunrise at Winter solstice and the gate of mortals to sunrise at Summer solstice.
While turning towards East, the being may give preference to North or South, to the dark or light side, to left or right. Giving preference to the left amounts to observe sunrise apparent movement between Winter and Summer solstice during its ascending phase towards North or to follow the “devayâna” path. Favouring the right consists in looking at the sunrise walk between Summer and Winter solstices in direction of South or to undertake again the descending phase of the “pitriyâna”.
Examples of the Eastern mode can been found within the Egyptian, Celtic, Biblical and Roman and Christian traditions.
A question related to orientation deals with the ritual “circumambulation” or the way to walk alongside a circle:
- The Emperor in China moved according to rituals within a square building divided into nine rooms and called “Ming Tang” (Temple of Light), which constituted an image of the Universe. He halted at the twelve openings associated with the twelve signs of the Zodiac;
- Buddhists turned around the Bodhi-tree as well as their stupas symbolizing the “World Axis” relating Heaven and Earth;
- Jews of the Old Testament circumambulated around the alter;
- At Mecca, pilgrims go into procession around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building within the court of the great Mosque that contains a sacred black stone given by Abraham etc.
The observer turning towards South sees the sun going from East to West or from left to right. When facing North and looking at the pole star, the other stars apparently revolve in circles around the North Celestial Pole in the retrograde direction or from right to left. In other words, ambulating alongside the circle as in the diagram below meant having the centre on his (or her) left in the polar mode and on his (or her) right in the solar mode.
The ritual walk should always start with the left foot in the solar mode and the right one in the polar mode. This walking order generally also occurs beyond the circumambulation as such, as a way to emphasize the predominance of the polar or solar point of view retained either in a tradition or at different times within the same tradition.
The adoption of a circumambulating direction secured the world harmony by ensuring that the microcosm moved according to the macrocosm.
- René Guénon:
- “The Great Triad”, South Asia Books Publisher;
- Particularly, chapter 7 dealing with orientation questions.