In the beginning, Judaism was a faith built on sacred sex.
At least, that's what Dan Brown told 60 million readers in "The Da Vinci Code," speaking though a fictional Harvard University scholar named Robert Langdon. And while the characters are fiction, the novelist continues to affirm the statement that opens his book: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."
One of those "secret rituals" is an eye-opener.
"Langdon's Jewish students always looked flabbergasted when he told them that the early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the Temple, no less," wrote Brown, in one of many long speeches that explain his iconoclastic plot. "Early Jews believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple housed not only God but also His powerful female equal, Shekinah. Men seeking spiritual wholeness came to the Temple to visit priestesses ... with whom they made love and experienced the divine through physical union."
For most people, the big news in "The Da Vinci Code" story was its message that Jesus was a brilliant and charismatic man -- but not the Son of God -- who was married to St. Mary Magdalene, had a child and tried to start a church built on secret truths and goddess worship. But Jesus was killed and, after a few centuries, powerful men crushed the Gnostic Christians. Meanwhile, the secret bloodline of Jesus lived on in Europe.
That's the side of the book, and now the movie, that makes headlines. But there is a message in the novel that is even more controversial and, for traditional Christians and Jews, more radical, according to philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi, who was born and educated in the diverse religious culture of India.
"The Da Vinci Code" is absolutely right when it states that the Judeo-Christian tradition, through the ages, did everything that it could to suppress sexual mysticism, fertility rites and goddess worship. The early church, he stressed, emerged in a world that was packed with pagan sanctuaries filled with scores of temple prostitutes.
The Judeo-Christian tradition emphasized the holiness of marriage, but never taught that sexual intercourse was -- in and of itself -- a sacred rite in which the spirit escapes the body and is able commune with some all-embracing deity.
"Dan Brown is right about the following: some pagan converts to Christ did bring sexual mysticism into the early church," said Mangalwadi, in a speech he delivered this week at Hollywood (Calif.) Presbyterian Church. In fact, the Book of Revelation condemns two early churches that tolerated believers who "practiced religious sex. It is possible that before becoming Christians these women and men had participated in prostitution in pagan temples. ...
"Given the fact that Christianity was an ascending religious force, they may have found it to their advantage to attract customers in the name of Christ. Some may well have re-written the life of Christ in the light of pagan spirituality to justify their preferred 'religious' practice."
In "The Da Vinci Code" itself, Brown stresses that the use of sexual rituals to create union with the gods and goddesses is older than the Christian faith and could, he claimed, be seen in Judaism. A one point, a central character witnesses a modern ritual in which a couple has sexual intercourse while surrounded by a circle of other members of the secret society that is preserving the true Christianity.
Thus, Brown's alter ego explains: "Historically, intercourse was the act through which male and female experienced God. The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine. Physical union with the female remained the sole means through which man could become spiritually complete and ultimately achieve gnosis -- knowledge of the divine. ... 'By communing with woman,' Langdon said, 'man could achieve a climactic instance when his mind went totally blank and he could see God.' "
The key is that this experience is the "sole means" for transformation. This theme is explicit in the novel, even though the movie does not stress it.
"Dan Brown is promoting a mystic experience in which our mind goes 'totally blank' -- beyond words, thoughts, ideals, beliefs and values," argued Mangalwadi. "This is a non-rational experience. Mystics promote it because the consider the intellect to be the source of ignorance, not a means to gaining knowledge."