Webs and Nets

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WEBS AND NETS . In general symbology, the act of weaving is usually understood to represent processes of creation and growth. Cognate symbols such as net, web, rope, fabric, and the like are frequently employed to suggest the unfolding of individual human lives and of the universe as a whole. These symbols bear also negative connotations as instruments of binding or tools of entrapment. Included in the symbolism of the net, for instance, are those negative forces that interact with positive ones to make of life the ambiguous reality that it is, a condition composed of pleasure and pain, health and disease, life and death, and so on.

In ancient Greece, the net of life and death is said to have been fashioned by the Moirai, personifications of the abstract concept moira ("fate, destiny"). These three stern, grim-faced women spin the web of destiny for each person at the time of his or her birth. In Homer, it is the gods who do the spinning (Iliad 24.525f.). Sometimes this is done by Zeus (Odyssey 4.207f.), but moira itself may also be the agent (Iliad 24.209f.). Odysseus declares to his blind psychopomp, Tiresias, "My life runs on as the gods have spun it" (Odyssey 11.104). In Plato (Symposium 196b), the art of weaving as practiced by the goddess Athena is attributed to Eros, the god of love.

Images of the crafts of weaving, plaiting, and interlacing strands to form nets, webs, sieves, and fabrics appear frequently in the literature of ancient Hinduism. In one creation hymn of the gveda, the cosmogonic agent is described as "stretching the warp and drawing the woof spreading [the fabric of heaven] upon the dome of the sky" (gveda 10.90.15). Elsewhere in this source (1.164.5), the "concealed footprints of the gods" seem to be thought of as an analogue for the sacrificial laws that are "woven" whenever the gods, in their function as divine priests, perform the sacrifice by the weaving of words.

In the Mahābhārata, kāla ("time, destiny") is represented as a cosmic weaver who composes the fabric of life for each individual and for the entire universe by intertwining the white threads of light, life, and well-being with the black threads of darkness, death, and sorrow.

Echoing earlier images such as indrajāla ("Indra's net") and brahmājāla ("Brahmā's net"), Vedānta texts sometimes compare the ultimate basis of the universe to a cosmic spider that in the beginning spins forth the multitudinous lineaments that form the fabric of the world and at the end withdraws those same threads back into its body.

Indian Buddhism makes similar use of these symbols, as an epithet of the bodhisattva MañjuśrīMāyājāla ("net of illusion")and the title of a canonical text, the Sandhinirmocana (Untying the knots), attest. Echoing the term bhavajala ("net of existence") contained in the Mañjuśrīnā-masagītī, Śāntideva, a Mahāyāna poet-philosopher of the seventh century ce, employs the image of a fisher's net to describe the desperate plight of living beings: "chased by fishers, the emotional defilements, into the net of birth " ("klesavagurikaghra-tah pravisto janmavaguram"; Bodhicar-yāvatāra 7.4).

In defining the essential elements of the process of enlightenment, the Mahāyānasūtrālakāra (9.35) likens the realization of voidness (sūnyatā ) and the cultivation of skillful means (upāya-kauśalya ) to the warp and woof, respectively, of a fabric: "Just as the particulars of its knotting [paśu ] determine whether a cloth [vastra ] is colorful or not, so the liberating gnosis is determined as colorful [i. e., endowed with positive qualities] or colorless by the power of motivation."

See Also

Binding; Fate; Knots.


Eliade, Mircea. "The 'God Who Binds' and the Symbolism of Knots." In his Images and Symbols. New York, 1961.

Greene, William C. Moira, Fate, Good and Evil in Greek Thought. Cambridge, Mass., 1944.

Reynolds, Frank E., and Earle H. Waugh, eds. Religious Encounters with Death. University Park, Pa., 1977.

J. Bruce Long (1987)

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Webs and Nets

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