Friends and I saw it when we were about 11 or 12 years old. We were impressed but not quite sure why.
It's only now, 14 years later, that the penny has dropped.
2001, that masterpiece of Sci-Fi, is actually a huge, authentic cosmo-spiritual metaphor. A show-case for the ancient Eastern outlook on life, the universe and everything. It is an ancient prophecy about the true destiny of the human race put into a futuristic forum. It describes the idea of humanity's ongoing collective evolution of awareness from primitive cave-man to high technological civilisation. 2001 tells us that mankind is evolving not to greater technical heights but to deeper spiritual awareness.
This evolution begins with primitive man's Mastery of the natural environment and ends with Dave's spiritual awakening. The cosmos itself portrayed as an active participant in this process thus suggesting its equivalence with "The Divine" or "God".
Throughout the film there is an ongoing organised cosmic process culminating at key points in humanity's evolution and history. This process brings man to the height of his material evolution but, through the individual journey of Dave, demonstrates that mankind's next and final frontier is not further material refinement but entry into a higher dimension of cosmic awareness, harmony and integration.
While this is a somewhat New age concept there is, in fact, nothing new about it. This core theme of 2001 is an artful demonstration of the ancient teaching of Avatar, Guru, spiritual evolution and self realisation. Looking at 2001 in this way gives us an inspiring taste of the Eastern view of humanity's collective evolution and final destiny. A message that we can assimilate for the good of our society.
The dawn of man
2001 begins with primitive man at the evolutionary entry point into his ascent from ape being to human being.
Man is portrayed in this primeval environment as supplicant to the forces of nature which dominate him as they do the beasts.
A mysterious, perfectly formed black monolith appears in the midst of one of the tribes. Though initially fearful the tribe is drawn to it. They touch the monolith in veneration and some strange and subtle effect is wrought upon them.
Soon after, one of the monolith-touching ape-men spontaneously develops the capacity to use a discarded bone as a tool (in this case a weapon). Simultaneously we are shown an alignment of sun, moon and the monolith on earth. The sudden progress that has occurred in this ape man's awareness is linked to the mystical effect of the monolith.
This point is critical to the whole film. Thanks to this subtle evolutionary effect of the monolith, man has now developed the capacity to control his environment. The monolith in some association with cosmic events has triggered a jump in human awareness. Thus begins the development of human civilisation. The monolith augers aeons of development centred around humanity's capacity to use tools and thereby master his physical environment.
The ape-man tosses the bone into the air and at the peak of its trajectory that primitive tool transforms into the most sophisticated of tools a space craft.
In this masterful edit 2001 brings us to the logical endpoint of mankind's technological evolution. Spaceflight and the new horizon of inter planetary travel beckons man into a new era of history.
On the moon
It is no accident that the film's next turn-of-plot should occur at this new dawn of man as he stands on the verge of colonising space.
The monolith makes its second appearance, this time mysteriously buried deep beneath the lunar surface. It is a closely guarded government secret. No one knows who put it there or why. As the top secret inspection team proudly gather around it for photos they are struck by an intensely painful radio impulse that brings them to their knees in agony. The radio beam, we later learn, is directed towards Jupiter.
What do we make of this? At the time of the radio signal the monolith is again part of some mysteriously purposeful planetary alignment suggesting that the whole event is part of a larger cosmic plan.
We realise that it is not just an idiosyncratic black monolith that is directing our attention to Jupiter but the cosmos itself. The monolith is a messenger expediting the cosmic will.
Did the monolith lie in wait within the moon for millions of years in anticipation that mankind would evolve sufficiently for another evolutionary push? At the dawn of man the monolith catalyzed a momentous change in humanity's destiny; does a similar event await us at Jupiter?By reaching the moon and detecting the monolith deep in the lunar rock, did humanity demonstrate its readiness (or need) for the next inflection in its evolutionary path?
Journey to Jupiter
So the Odyssey departs. During its course to Jupiter the HAL9000 computer, supposedly perfect and completely reliable. malfunctions. It becomes deluded, psychotic and murderous. Hal feels that it must kill the entire crew in order to preserve the mission and he succeeds in doing away with all the astronauts except for Dave.
By sheer grit and a little luck Dave outwits Hal, bypasses him through an emergency hatch and disconnects the deluded machine, ending its malevolent influence over the ship and the mission.
The Odyssey arrives at Jupiter under manual control. No doubt that Dave would have been through many a trial and tribulation in that lonely, exhausting final leg after disconnecting Hal.
In the orbit of Jupiter Dave approaches the monolith in his EVO. As in previous encounters he attempts to touch it. In so doing he accesses a multi dimensional cosmic, mind blowing experience. It is some sort of awesome, psychedelic terrifying catharsis cum exorcism. It leaves Dave in a very unexpected state.
We find him sitting in some sort of quasi-perfect, inexplicably luminous room. He has aged and continues to do so at an accelerated rate. He dines from fine china, wears immaculate clothing and drinks wine from a crystal glass. It seems that he has achieved some sort of almost ideal state of existence.
Yet this single room feels somehow limited.
Dave's sagacity is shattered when, while dining at an elegant meal table, he bumps his wine glass. It falls and breaks, spilling wine on his immaculately luminous floor. The illusion of Dave's abstract and until now perfect existence is ended. He realises the illusory nature of his post cathartic state.
This brings him to his death bed. The ageing and decrepit man in his final gesture reaches to touch the monolith that now stands inexplicably before him.
Remember the evolutionary effect of the monolith on earth? It directed humanity to Jupiter. There in Jupiter's orbit it brought Dave to a state of abstract, near perfection
And yet that state is still limited in its nature. The luminous room is still confining, finite (and, yes, Dave broke the crockery which ought never to happen in an abstractly perfect world). So one suspects that the transformation that began with the psychedelic catharsis is about to finish.
In his final living moments Dave touches the monolith and somehow a new being emerges forth.
A foetal child in uterine posture with umbilical cord attached. It is not surrounded by its mother's flesh and blood womb but by the stellar patterns of the universe. Unlike a child in utero this cosmic child's eyes are completely open and fully aware. It moves its head and comprehends the source of its sustenance, the universe itself. He has taken rebirth as child of the Cosmic Mother.
The evolution of Dave has culminated. He has attained a state, thanks to the aeons-long influence of the monolith, of child-like, Zen simplicity.
From victim of nature mankind had risen to master it. Now, in the completed evolutionary state he has become its child. He draws succour directly from the cosmos and comprehends it in child like simplicity and surrender. The universe, his mother, orchestrated his entire evolution.
Dave has taken a second, immaculate birth. Born first into the material world from a flesh and blood mother, in which he developed & evolved until he was ready for his second birth into a cosmic dimension of the universal awareness; the Cosmic or Universal Mother.
Dave, in crossing the void of space (ignorance), surviving the maniacal Hal 9000 (the mind, source of most delusion), the even more terrifying expurgation of his own being (that psychedelic experience which was the process of purification) attained a direct connection (yoga) with the cosmic awareness (self realisation).
Like Homer's Odyssey in which Odysseus ultimately achieves reunion with his wife (the Divine Feminine), Dave's union with the cosmos (the Divine Mother) is the completion of a spiritual odyssey. He suffered the trials and tribulations in the lethal vacuum of ignorance (space), the pitfalls of the mind (Hal) and the illusion of semi perfect states, ( the luminous room) that are achieved on the path to complete self-realisation (the cosmic child).
Unlike Homer's odyssey, however, this not an individual one. Rather, that final journey of Dave's self realisation was but a small part of a huge cosmic evolutionary play in which the entire humanity is involved. Dave's transformation, like that of the first tool-using ape man, is merely the first of many. He is the evolutional pioneer whose experience will ultimately engulf each and every member of the human species.
This and other ideas in 2001 bear remarkable resemblance to Eastern spiritual principles
Monolith as avatar
The regular appearance of the monolith, and its evolutionary effect on those who came into contact with it directly parallel the idea of the Avatar.
An Avatar is an "incarnation" or being which has taken birth/form into the earthly dimension of existence. It is the essence of the Divine itself. Avatars are perfect and omniscient. Christ was an Avatar. So too was Krishna. Other examples would include Lord Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tse, Nanak.
Christ taught humanity the qualities of forgiveness and compassion. He took birth to take the Judaic path of spirituality into its next stage of evolution ( ie. Christianity). He also ushered in the Piscean age. Christianity, however distorted it has now become, is the foundation of Western civilisation as we know it.
Lord Krishna was also an Avatar. He too came at a time when the culture had veered to an extreme of behaviour that focussed on superficial moral observance and religious ritual but lacked perception of deeper ethical issues. While Krishna taught the value of morality he de-emphasised the influence of cultural mores which allowed villains to hide behind the letter of the law.
Krishna also came to disassemble the dominance of the ruling martial elite in order to prepare human civilisation for the next phase of existence called the Kali Yuga. In this age, the modern age of spiritual confusion, Krishna advised humanity that spirituality will not necessarily reside with those who appear to be spiritual. He hinted about an age of false gurus, spiritual charlatans and moral hypocrisy of individuals and institutions. The only true source of spiritual awareness will be the attainment of the inner transformation called self-realisation.The Second Birth.
Krishna told this to his closest friend and disciple, Arjuna. At Arjuna's request Krishna manifested his Divine form which lay beneath his illusory human guise. This was such an awesome and terrifying experience that the description in the Bhagavad Gita is strongly reminiscent of Dave's experience when he first interfaced with the monolith at Jupiter
Even though he begged Krishna to stop this revelation Arjuna received his self realisation. Arjuna had become, in Krishna'sword's, a "twice born". Like Dave, Arjuna had taken his second birth into the field of cosmic, spiritual awareness.
There is now evidence that Christ, too, taught about self realisation. Even in canon texts he compels his followers to become "like little children" (as Dave and Arjuna did). It is in this Zen state that one can experience the cosmic mother.
One is also compelled to interpret the miracle of Whitsunday, when the Holy Spirit empowered the Apostles, in a similar fashion. The apostles received their second birth after an awesome, literally earth-shaking experience. Is self realisation the true meaning of the term "born again"?
Like the monolith, Avatars have appeared at critical points in human development in order to positively influence the direction of human evolution. In the West we believe that humanity will continue evolving toward greater technological prowess. In the East, however, the avatars that have come or currently live tell us that humanity's evolutionary destiny does not lie in a futuristic age of technocratic achievement but in a golden age of ideal spiritual awareness.
Dave's self-realisation stands not as an individual evolutionary achievement but, much as the first fish to leave the water for land or as the first tool-using ape-man, as the first being to pioneer a new cosmic existence which is ultimately the destiny of us all.
Let's look at some other parallels that lie hidden beneath the surface of 2001.
Moon; our true desire is to realise the goddess
When an individual has achieved all that is possible on the physical plane: shelter, food, family, material security, he or she realises there still remains a deeper, unfulfilled desire. The psychologist Maslow described this in his theory of the hierarchy of needs: when our basic physical needs of day to day existence are fulfilled there surfaces a desire to realise higher truths, the meaning of life or "self realisation".
C.G. Jung suggested that this can happen on a collective level so that large demographic chunks of our society become preoccupied with seeking the meaning of life; hence the New Age movement.
Bearing this in mind we see in 2001 that humanity has reached a technological peak. Space flight and colonisation of the moon have been achieved. One can presume that many of the mundane problems of human existence may also have been solved. Despite such heights of achievement humanity still desires to expand and seek further horizons in this case the rest of the solar system. C G. Jung suggested that at this point humanity will realise that it has achieved so much and yet so little for the universal quest for meaning has not yet been fulfiled.
The monolith first appears on earth but later on the moon. The moon traditionally represents desire and emotion.Indeed the moon is also symbol of the Goddess, an aspect of the cosmic Mother. Jung established the moon as symbol of the feminine: A long neglected aspect of the psyche in our patriarchal civilisation that has, in his analysis, become over masaculminised.
Note that the monolith greeted prehistoric ma on earth with the simple gift of tool-use. Yet on the moon he was given the intensely painful radio impulse and directed to Jupiter.
Was mankind being punished for the lopsided and materialistic development that brought him to the moon and yet perpetuated his ignorance of the greater cosmos? As the astronauts posed around the lunar monolith their pride was lanced by the radio signal: as if to chastise man for thee go driven space conquest that brought him to the moon. Yet the monolith, buried 40 million years ago, had waited patiently for them in cosmic and omniscient expectation that man would arrive there.
Symbolically the cosmos knew that humanity would not find fulfilment in technology alone.
Jupiter; the guru planet
Does Jupiter, to which the monolith points as it chastens the astronauts, represent the potential source of their true fulfilment? We see the Avatar-like role of the monolith. It has again appeared, at the brink of humanity's entry into a new era of history.
The seeker, having satisfied himself in all aspects of the material plane, realises that he still lacks deep fulfilment. In this state of spiritual dissatisfaction the seeker begins a personal search, an odyssey, for truth that ultimately ends in self realisation.
In the ancient Eastern tradition such a seeker entreats the help of one who has already crossed the void of spiritual ignorance, and has sufficiently perfected their self-realisation such that they can facilitate the spiritual evolution of others. The Indian term for such a mystic is "guru" (teacher and master).
Is it not remarkable that Dave travels his own perilous journey in a ship called the "Odyssey" to Jupiter: a planet traditionally described in India as the Guru?
It is in the orbit of the guru planet that Dave again encounters the monolith (Avatar) and is launched into a bizarre individual journey. Initially an awesome and psychedelic catharsis which seems to be a sort of purgation of his very consciousness. Then of the second birth and the full fruition of his spiritual awareness as divine child of the cosmic mother.
An important, fundamental lesson in Eastern mysticism is taught in this metaphor: That the Divine principle is experienced by those who have been prepared, tested and purified; and that the path to the Godhead is best travelled under the influence of the mighty guru. The guru has the mandate of the Godhead itself to cultivate the seekers in the final steps of their spiritual evolution.
Mind as enemy of truth
The seeker's journey to the essence of the guru (Jupiter) around which even the Divine (monolith) respectfully circumambulates (in Jovian orbit),is perilous too.
Dave must survive the lethal vacuum of space. That void of ignorance and emptiness that surrounds each of us when we choose to exist in the absence of absolute, cosmic awareness, say the mystics, is even more lethal. There is, they say, a greater enemy than even this; it plagues the seeker more than demons, beasts or physical peril. It is more cunning and subtle than we could begin to imagine. It is the human mind represented in 2001 as the Hal 9000 artificially intelligent computer.
Very few of us question the perception of our mind. Like the crew of the odyssey (and all of earth) we are taught to assume that the mind (Hal) is perfect. Indeed Hal. like our own mind, was quick to remind the crew of its own infallibility.
Inevitably Dave on his journey to the guru, discovers that Hal is an unexpected but efficient enemy that resides within the space craft itself. Like our own minds Hal is deluded and confused. Its voice and rational logic is reassuring but its true agenda is to prevent Dave from achieving his destiny at Jupiter.
In the great tradition of all seekers of mystic knowledge Dave, by sheer courage and determination, disconnected Hal. Ergo the seeker overcomes his greatest obstacle in Zen like tradition by dissolving the mind and thus escaping from the trap of subjective thought and perception
Odyssey is the seeker's body
The odyssey itself is heavily symbolic.The entire spacecraft has an uncanny resemblance to the human skull and spine.
Throughout the ancient world, in many different cultures, the mystic experience of self realisation is described as a tangible one: An experience that ultimately involves all five senses and beyond, say the ancient Indian gurus. More so in ancient India the means of attaining the experience is said to be by awakening of the Kundalini energy. This is an energy that exists at the base of the spine (within the sacrum). Its awakening causes it to rise through the seven vital energy centres that exist in the spinal cord and brain.
Since it potentially involves all the senses the process of self realisation must be, in the Indian tradition, one that involves an actualisation of a mechanism within the central nervous system. (brain and spinal cord). So it is remarkable that the Odyssey should, with its long, multi segmented body and spherical command centre, so closely mimic the human skull and backbone that protectively encloses the central nervous system.
The Odyssey is symbolic of the seeker's body. Hal is the seeker's mind. Dave is the soul of the seeker. The stellar space through which he travelled is the void of ignorance. Jupiter is the guru who facilitates Dave's Divine union with the monolith which is a messenger, instrument and aspect of the Cosmic Mother.
There are a few other parallels worth noting. Dave's personal meeting with the monolith requires him to leave the Odyssey. Hence at this time he has not only mastered the mind by disconnecting Hal but has now also become detached form his body (the Odyssey).
Monolith as shivalingam
The monolith is a large perfectly formed rectangular black prism. It represents the distillation of the cosmic evolutionary power/Avatar/Godhead in physically perfect form. Its featurelessness emphasises its symbolic, iconic role. Interesting that it should be so similar to the ancient Indian tradition of the Shiva Lingam. The Lingam is a black featureless cylindrical block used to represent the presence of the Godhead. The Divine is all pervasive, omniscient perfect and therefore impossible to represent directly. The lingam serves as a symbolic representation of this otherwise indescribable cosmic principle.
Are we reading too much Indian imagery into the film? Not when one considers the heavy influence of Indian culture on its author, A.C.Clarke. He has lived in India for much of his later life and professes a certain sympathy with Indian culture.
Prophecy; our destiny
The first tool using ape-man was not to remain unique. The entire tribe followed in his wake until all of humanity exercised the capability of that first pioneer.
Similarly Dave, by his individual journey of self realisation, will ultimately be followed by the rest of humanity.
Perhaps this is the most poignant thrust of 2001. A.C.Clarke and Stanley Kubrick are indeed making a prophecy. They are suggesting that the next evolutionary step is not technical but spiritual. Humanity's destiny at this point in time relies on each of us to undergo the inner transformation of self realisation.
The meta modern era, then, will not be a techno-utopia but a spiritual golden age. The key to our evolutionary destiny is universal en masse experience of self realisation. The wisdom of the ancient East offers this hope to a civilisation mistakenly seeking to define itself and its meaning within the confines of material illusion.
Dr. Ramesh Manocha