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Unlocking the Healing Power of Belief

Science is showing that how you feel isn’t just about what you eat, or do, or think. It’s about what you believe.

At the University of Florida, Parkinson’s disease patient Russell Price undergoes surgery to implant a deep brain stimulation (DBS) lead that will deliver electrical impulses to motion-controlling parts of his brain, treatment which has been shown to provide substantial relief from symptoms in appropriately selected patients. Additional improvement in some patients may also derive from the mere expectation that the procedure will help—the so-called placebo effect. “It’s not a magical thing,” says neurologist Michael Okun.

The pilgrim wasn’t sure he’d make it to the Chapel of Grace. It was agony to walk at all, let alone endure the 70 miles that thousands of believers trek each year to behold an enshrined wood statue: the Black Madonna of Altötting.

Richard Mödl had recently broken his heel, but in 2003 he was determined to complete his first pilgrimage from Regensburg to Altötting, Germany. He figured if the pain got too bad he could always hitch a ride. But he had a deep faith in the Virgin Mary’s ability to deliver him. So he walked. And walked.

Today, at 74, Mödl has a warm smile and a wiry frame that looks as if it could survive a charging rhinoceros. Since the healing of his foot, he’s made the pilgrimage 12 more times, and he’s a passionate believer in its transformative power.

Mödl is not alone in his belief. Whether it takes the form of a touch of the Holy Spirit at a Florida revival meeting or a dip in the water of the Ganges, the healing power of belief is all around us. Studies suggest that regular religious services may improve the immune system, decrease blood pressure, add years to our lives.

Religious faith is hardly the only kind of belief that has the ability to make us feel inexplicably better. Six thousand miles from Altötting, another man experienced what seemed to be a medical miracle.

Mike Pauletich first noticed he had a problem in 2004. His aim with a baseball was off, and his arm hurt. His hand shook a little, and, strangest of all, his wife noticed he never smiled anymore.

Figuring he had carpal tunnel syndrome, he went to the doctor. But his bad aim wasn’t because of his arm, and the reason he wasn’t smiling wasn’t because his arm hurt. At 42 years old, Pauletich had early onset Parkinson’s disease. His doctor told him that within a decade he wouldn’t be able to walk, stand, or feed himself.

Pauletich didn’t deteriorate as much as his doctor predicted, but for years he struggled with the disease and with depression, as talking and writing became ever harder. Then, in 2011, he turned to Ceregene, a company that was testing a new gene therapy. Parkinson’s is the result of a chronic loss of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It had been shown in monkeys that injections of a protein called neurturin could halt the progress of the disease by protecting and possibly repairing damaged dopamine-secreting neurons. Ceregene’s experimental treatment was to cut two holes, one in each hemisphere of the brain, through a patient’s skull and inject the drug directly into the target regions.

Pauletich’s improvement after the surgery was impressive. Before the trial he had struggled to move around. He had to constantly explain to clients of his technology development company that his slurred speech wasn’t caused by drinking. After the procedure his shaking disappeared, his mobility improved, and his speech became markedly clearer. (Today you can hardly tell he has the disease at all.) His doctor on the study, Kathleen Poston, was astonished. Strictly speaking, Parkinson’s had never been reversed in humans; the best one could hope for was a slowdown in the progression of the disease, and even that was extremely rare.

In April 2013, Ceregene announced the results of the trial: Neurturin had failed. Patients who had been treated with the drug did not improve any more significantly than those in a control group who had received a placebo treatment—a sham surgery in which a doctor drilled “divots” into the patient’s skull so that it would feel as if there had been an operation. Ceregene was bought by another company in 2013, and its work on neurturin for Parkinson’s has not been continued.

Poston was crushed. But then she looked at the data and noticed something that stopped her cold. Mike Pauletich hadn’t gotten the real surgery. He had gotten the placebo.

In a sense both Pauletich and Mödl participated in a performance, one that we humans have been engaging in for thousands of years, every time we go to healers with the hope that they can make us feel better. And just as a good performance in a theater can draw us in until we feel we’re watching something real, the theater of healing is designed to draw us in by creating powerful expectations in our brains. These expectations drive the so-called placebo effect, which can affect what happens in our bodies as well. Scientists have known about the placebo effect for decades and have used it as a control in drug trials. Now they are seeing placebos as a window into the neurochemical mechanisms that connect the mind with the body, belief with experience.

How does a belief become so potent it can heal? Back to the theater: A crucial part of an inspiring performance is sets and costumes. When Pauletich experienced improvement in his symptoms, it wasn’t just because of the divots he could feel in his head or what the doctors told him about surgery. It was the whole scene he’d experienced: the doctors in their white coats, stethoscopes around their necks; the nurses, checkups, tests, maybe even the bad music in the hospital waiting room. Physicians sometimes call these trappings around hospitals the theater of medicine.

jones navajo shaman

Jones Benally, a healer on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona for more than 75 years, treats the body and the mind of his patient to relieve her pain and stress. He works in a hogan (here)—and also in hospitals and elder-care centers. His daughter and his sons are learning his skills in order to carry on the tradition.

This stagecraft extends to many aspects of treatment and can operate on a subconscious level. Expensive placebos work better than cheap ones. Placebos in brand-name containers work better than those labeled generics. Placebo suppositories work better in France, while the English prefer to swallow their placebos. Often fake injections work better than fake pills. But fake surgeries seem to be the most powerful of all.

Most astonishingly, placebos can work even when the person taking them knows they are placebos. This was reported in a now classic 2010 paper published by Ted Kaptchuk, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, and his team. After 21 days of taking a placebo, people with irritable bowel syndrome felt markedly better when compared with people who received nothing, even though those who reported feeling relief were told beforehand (and reminded afterward) that they were receiving placebos.

The experiment showed that a supportive patient-practitioner relationship was key in creating belief in a successful outcome. Patients were educated about the power of placebos and positive attitude. They were told that the placebo pills had been shown, in rigorous clinical testing, to induce meaningful self-healing processes. They were instructed to take the pills faithfully, missing no doses.

“Dealing with expectation is very tricky,” says Kaptchuk, who has spent his life studying placebo effects. “We’re dealing with very imprecise measuring of a very imprecise phenomenon. And a lot of it’s nonconscious.”

Karin Jensen, one of Kaptchuk’s former colleagues who now runs her own lab at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, designed an experiment to determine whether it was possible to use subliminal cues to condition subjects to experience a placebo effect.

During the conditioning phase of the experiment, subjects viewed alternating faces on a screen. Jensen used faces in her experiment because our brains are particularly adept at quickly recognizing them. Half the subjects received subliminal cues: The faces appeared for just a fraction of a second—not long enough to consciously tell them apart. For the other subjects, the facial cues appeared long enough for them to be consciously recognized.

During this first phase, varying heat stimuli were delivered to the subjects’ arms along with the facial cues: more heat with the first face, less heat with the second. In the testing phase that followed, the subjects, including those who saw only the quick-flash subliminal cues, reported feeling more pain when they saw the first face, although the heat stimuli remained moderate and identical for both faces. The subjects had thus developed an unconscious link between greater pain and the first face.

The experiment showed that a placebo response can be conditioned subliminally. Jensen points out that tiny cues as you walk into a hospital—many of which are experienced unconsciously—trigger responses in our bodies in a similar way.

“Part of healing is nonconscious—something that happens instinctually,” she says.

Neuroradiologist

At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, neuroradiologist David Kallmes injects medical bone cement into a patient’s spine to stabilize a painful vertebral compression fracture. A study directed by Kallmes at the clinic showed pain relief was almost the same one month later in a control group that received sham procedures. “Shocking to most people,” Kallmes said of the results. “Surprising to me.”

Hospitals are just one common venue for the theater of belief. There are hundreds of alternative medical treatments that harness our expectations—homeopathy, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicines, urine therapy, cow dung tablets, human blood facials, vitamin infusions, sound healing, to name a few—all with varying levels of proven efficacy.

Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford University who has dedicated much of her professional life to understanding people’s interactions with God, says:

“Belief is natural. It comes partly from the way our minds are hardwired”

She says that belief-based healing requires not only a good story but also the effort of an active listener—one with the ability to make what is imagined feel real. When story and imagination sync, the results can be astounding.

“Humans have the capacity to change their experience,” she says. “These are skills, and we can learn them.”

I’d heard of the belief-based healing of the brujos, or witch doctors, of Catemaco, in the state of Veracruz on the eastern coast of Mexico. They are particularly theatrical healers, blending shamanistic traditions with Roman Catholicism much as Christians did a thousand years ago. I’d heard stories of massive, pentagram-shaped bonfires and dancing madmen who spit all over you as a blessing. Certainly worth a visit.

But when I arrived in Catemaco and made my way to a modern brujo’s office, I found no fires or whooping shamans. Far from the dark, bat-infested cave I’d expected, the waiting area turned out to be a tidy little living room that smelled of disinfectant. Plastic amulets and glass crystals lined the shelves. About 10 people sat in chairs, reading magazines or watching soccer on TV. As witch doctors go, the brujo who greeted me looked more doctor than witch. Dressed all in white, he sported a neat mustache and short, heavily gelled hair. Half his office was taken up by an altar packed with crucifixes, statues of saints, flowers, and hundreds of blinking, colored lights.

I’d come for a simple limpia—a cleansing of my spirit. The brujo grabbed an egg, a few sprigs of basil, and a couple of plastic squirt bottles filled with what he said were envy blockers, bad-energy protection, and a liquid that makes wealth. Everything was orderly and sanitized. After a short interview, he got down to the business of my spirit, squirting me liberally with pungent oils and rubbing an egg over my body before cracking it open into a glass of water and examining the contents.

I was familiar with this routine—it’s common among brujos in Mexico. What surprised me was the lack of pomp or mumbo jumbo. It was more clinical than ceremonial. The brujo asked about my knees and lower back (both fine) and informed me that the egg indicated I might be in for some pain in the future. Like a radiologist explaining features on an x-ray, he noted several bubbles around the egg white in the glass: a sign that someone close to me was jealous and wished me ill. Then he offered, for an extra fee, to protect me from future harm. I declined; we shook hands. I left feeling a sense of anticlimax, as if I had somehow missed something. Where was the theater?

It was only when I was back on the street that I began to understand. Twenty years ago you could still find “authentic” dancing, spitting witch doctors in Catemaco (and they still show up for tourists and festivals). But expectation is a moving target. Over the past generation, conventional medicine has become the norm in Catemaco. Spitting and waving chicken feathers inspired confidence before, but most brujos today have adapted to the times, mixing white lab coats and antiseptic spray with their mysticism to tap into their modern patients’ expectations: the theater of medicine. My brujo made eye contact and smiled warmly, like a skillful, caring medical doctor.

And I have to say, I did feel a little better.

JASON TREAT, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI ART: STUDIO MUTI. SOURCES: IRENE TRACEY, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD; FABRIZIO BENEDETTI, UNIVERSITY OF TURIN

JASON TREAT, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI
ART: STUDIO MUTI. SOURCES: IRENE TRACEY, UNIVERSITY
OF OXFORD; FABRIZIO BENEDETTI, UNIVERSITY OF TURIN

So how does the theater of medicine actually work? How does a belief literally heal?

One part of the puzzle involves conditioning, as Jensen has shown. Recall Pavlov’s dog, which drooled every time it heard a bell. That happened because Pavlov conditioned the animal to connect food with the sound. Scientists have been able to train the immune systems of rats by pairing sweet liquids with cyclosporine A, a drug that blocks the function of immune cells to keep patients from rejecting transplanted organs. Every time the rat has a sweet drink, it also gets the drug. But after enough trials, the drug is unnecessary: The sweet drink alone is enough to shut down the rat’s immune response.

The placebo effect’s conditioned response in reaction to pain is to release brain chemicals—endorphins, or opium-like painkillers—synthesized in the body. In the 1970s two San Francisco neuroscientists interested in how those internal opioids control pain made a discovery during an experiment with patients who had just had their wisdom teeth pulled.

Ashinaka

The Ashaninka people of Peru use vapor from boiled herbs in their healing rituals. This ceremony is performed by Mircyla Prado Pintallo; at 11 years old she’s learning the art of the vaporadora. Once the patient inhales the vapor, Mircyla will read the leaves to determine whether the healing has succeeded and possibly prescribe other herbs to help the patient regain good health.

The researchers first compared the response of a placebo group to the response of another group that received naloxone, a drug that cancels out the ameliorating effect of opioids. None of the subjects received or expected to receive morphine—and all of them felt miserable. Then the scientists redesigned the experiment, telling the patients that some of them would receive morphine, some a placebo, and some naloxone. No one, including the researchers, knew who would receive what. This time, some of the patients felt better, even though they didn’t receive morphine. Their expectation of potential relief triggered the release of endorphins in their bodies, and those endorphins reduced the pain. But as soon as they got naloxone, they were in pain again. The drug wiped out the action of the endorphins that the placebo response had released.

Howard Fields, an emeritus professor at the University of California, San Francisco and one of the authors of the study, says:

“Without the expectation of pain relief, you can’t have a placebo effect”

Since that experiment, conditioning has been used to study the effects of belief on the release of other drugs produced by the body, including serotonin, dopamine, and some cannabinoids, which can work in a way similar to the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that scientists could watch how these effects play out in the brain. Tor Wager, then a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, put subjects in a brain scanner. He applied cream to both of each subject’s wrists, then strapped on electrodes that could deliver painful shocks or heat. He told the subjects that one of the creams could ameliorate pain, but the creams, in fact, were the same, and neither had any inherent pain-reducing qualities. After several rounds of conditioning, the subjects learned to feel less pain on the wrist coated with the “pain relieving” cream; on the last run, strong shocks felt no worse than a light pinch. A typical conditioned placebo response.

The most interesting part was what the brain scans showed. Normal pain sensations begin at an injury and travel in a split second up through the spine to a network of brain areas that recognize the sensation as pain. A placebo response travels in the opposite direction, beginning in the brain. An expectation of healing in the prefrontal cortex sends signals to parts of the brain stem, which creates opioids and releases them down to the spinal cord. We don’t imagine we’re not in pain. We self-medicate, literally, by expecting the relief we’ve been conditioned to receive.

“The right belief and the right experience work together,” says Wager, now a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of a neuroscience lab there. “And that’s the recipe.”

The recipe of belief and experience is finding its way out of the lab and into clinical practice as well. Christopher Spevak is a pain and addiction doctor at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Every day he sees active service members and veterans with severe injuries, sometimes just days or weeks after they have left the battlefield. This offers him an opportunity to use expectation and conditioning to tap into internal opioids to stave off, or at least mitigate, long-term pain.

When Spevak first meets patients, he doesn’t ask about their injuries or their medical histories—he has all that on file. Instead he asks them about themselves. He might learn that in childhood a person had a favorite eucalyptus tree outside his house or loved peppermint candies. Eventually, if Spevak prescribes opioid painkillers, every time the patient takes one, he also has eucalyptus oil to smell or a peppermint to eat—whatever stimulus Spevak knows will resonate. Over time, just as with Jensen’s quick-flash faces or Wager’s skin cream (or for that matter, Pavlov’s bell), patients start linking the sensory experience to the drugs. After a while, Spevak cuts down on the drug and just provides the sounds or smells. The patient’s brain can go to an internal pharmacy for the needed drugs.

Ritual and Belief

bad energy cleansing

Chasing away bad energy and spirits with fire, Hmong shaman Ploua Her leads an annual curing ceremony to protect the home of Wang Lue Her. A goat, pigs, and chickens will then be sacrificed, and later eaten by gathered family members.

“We have triple amputees, quadruple amputees, who are on no opioids,” Spevak says of his Iraq and Afghanistan veteran patients. “Yet we have older Vietnam vets who’ve been on high doses of morphine for low back pain for the past 30 years.”

Two years ago Leonie Koban, a member of Tor Wager’s lab, spearheaded a novel placebo study. The scientists were well aware of the roles of conditioning and theater in channeling expectations. They wanted to test the effect of a third element influencing experiences of pain: other believers.

As in many previous tests of the placebo effect, the researchers delivered a burning sensation to their subjects’ arms and asked the subjects to rate how strong it was. But this time they introduced an extra variable. The volunteers looked at a screen and saw a series of hash marks representing how previous participants had rated their pain. For the same stimulus, the subjects reported feeling higher or lower levels of pain based on what they were told previous participants had felt.

The result was not surprising. In the 1950s, a series of tests called the Asch experiments showed that subjects can give answers they know to be wrong in order to conform with the group. What shocked Koban and Wager was the sheer strength of the social influence: The effect was larger than might be expected after conditioning. Tests of the subjects’ skin conductance responses—involuntary changes in how the body is conducting electricity, often used in lie detection—showed that they were not just reporting what they thought the researchers wanted to hear; they were actually responding less to pain. Studies with fMRI machines implicated a separate, complementary network of brain activity that kicks in when conventional placebos are enhanced by peer pressure. Koban goes so far as to say that social information might be more powerful in altering the experience of pain than both conditioning and subconscious cues.

“Information we take from our social relationships has really profound influences, [not only] on emotional experiences but also on health-related outcomes such as pain and healing,” Koban says.

“And we are only beginning to understand these influences and how we can harness them.”

placebo MRI

Placebo expert Luana Colloca at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and others have uncovered another trigger of the mysterious effect: how we think others experience pain. In this experiment, subjects were conditioned to perceive a heat stimulus as stronger when it was paired with an image of a face showing distress, even when the stimulus was moderate. An MRI machine captures how the brain responds to the coupled stimuli.

The impact of the social group could help explain why religion might in a very literal sense be what Karl Marx defined as “the opium of the people”: It can tap into the ability to access our own store of beliefs and expectations, especially when we’re surrounded by other believers who are doing the same.

Nowhere is the power of group belief more evident than in religious pilgrimages—whether it’s the annual Catholic trek to Lourdes, in France, the annual hajj pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, or, largest of all, the Maha Kumbh Mela, occurring every 12 years. The latest Kumbh Mela, in February 2013, drew an estimated 70 million Hindus to the Indian city of Allahabad.

Or the pilgrimage to Altötting where I met Richard Mödl. The first documented healing in Altötting was in 1489, when a drowned boy was said to have been miraculously brought back to life. Today the Black Madonna there attracts about a million visitors a year.

The pilgrims I joined on a cold Bavarian morning in 2016 had already been walking since 3 a.m. After pausing for breakfast, everyone was chatting happily, waiting for the signal to begin walking again, in the rain. I had been nervous about the trip because of ankle surgery I’d had three months before. But in that merry throng of believers, my pain faded away.

“Everyone is here for their own reasons, but they are all here for each other just as much,” said Marcus Brunner, a cheery priest and 27-year veteran of the walk. “The group carries you, and you carry the group all together.”

When we arrived in the Chapel of Grace, we found it covered inside and out with ex-votos—pictures representing miracles spanning hundreds of years and showing every imaginable ailment. Propped against the walls were crutches and canes left behind through the ages by parishioners and pilgrims whose suffering was relieved by the Black Madonna. The expectation of healing continues unabated.

“There is a different way of thinking here,” said Thomas Zauner, a psychotherapist and deacon who had moved to Altötting in order to seek a supportive community for his developmentally disabled child. “Prayer seems to actually work.”

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Spirituality

Taj Mahal – An Amazing Love Story

The construction of the Taj Mahal (literally translated from the Persian language as “Crown of the Mughals”) was associated with the name of the beautiful woman – Arjumand Bano Begum, or Mumtaz – “Queen of the Soul”.

At 200 kilometers from the capital of India, Delhi, on the high bank of the Ganges tributary – the Jamna – is the five-domed Taj Mahal mausoleum. The white-stone structure surprises and delights with its perfect proportions, an elegant mosaic of colored precious and semiprecious stones, and skillful carving.

The Taj Mahal is a whole complex of buildings. Taj – white, and around the fortress and minarets of red sandstone. The mausoleum has absolute proportions: on the base and height – an exact square, each side of which is 75 meters. Several paths stretch to the Taj Mahal, between them there is water in the pools, first the entire mausoleum is reflected in it, and as it approaches, its individual details.

Local architects worked together with artists from Damascus, gardeners from Constantinople and Samarkand to create the Indian pearl. When creating the interior, interior decoration of the mausoleum, the craftsmen used the best varieties of white, occasionally yellow and black marble, mother of pearl, jasper, agate, emeralds, aquamarines, pearls and hundreds of other stones.

QUEEN OF THE SOUL

Arjumand Bano Begum was only 19 years old when she became the second wife of Prince Guram (future Shah-Jahan). And although the prince had several more wives and many concubines, Mumtaz won the heart of her husband and undividedly owned him until the end of his days. It was an unusually romantic and poetic love. Mumtaz was not only his most beloved wife, but his most faithful companion since the turbulent times when Prince Guram wandered around the world, pursued by his father Jahangir, when he obtained his throne in a fierce struggle with his brothers. In 1627, Guram, having gained a final victory over them and seized his father’s throne, assumed the title of emperor, Shah-Jahan – “ruler of the world”. Mumtaz finally became the queen of India.

Shah Jahan adored his wife and each time he honored her, held lavish receptions and grandiose celebrations in her honor, without her any important ceremony would begin, and not a single state act would be adopted. Mumtaz was present at the meetings of the State Council; her opinion was almost never disputed by anyone.

The portrait of the queen, painted by her contemporary, has been preserved. Violating one of the strictest prohibitions of Islam – to draw portraits of animals and people, an unknown artist skillfully conveyed the beauty of Mumtaz, a white-faced Persian, a pearl of the East.

A happy life together ended abruptly. In the spring of 1636, Mumtaz suddenly fell ill: before dying, she turned to her husband with a request to take care of their eldest daughter, Jahanara Begum, and took an oath from him – to build a tomb worthy of their love, their joint nineteen-year-old married life. Mumtaz’s death shocked Jahan.

WHITE AND BLACK PALACES

Widowed, he commanded the construction of an unprecedentedly beautiful mausoleum. Shah was presented with many different projects, the authors of which were the best of the best architects of the East. Of these, he chose a project created by Indian architect Ystad Khan Effendi. Following this, a twenty-thousand army of builders was driven into Agra: masons, marble cutters, jewelers and handymen. Marble was brought from Makran near Jaipur, sandstone from Sikri, gems from India, Afghanistan, Persia and Central Asia.

The entire complex of the mausoleum was created over twenty two years. Having fulfilled the mandate of “the queen of her soul”, Jahan proceeded to a new, no less grandiose construction – exactly the same mausoleum, but only of black marble, for himself – on the other (left) bank of the Jamna River. According to the Shah’s plan, both mausoleums, like marital chambers, were to be connected by a high lace bridge of black and white marble. Preparatory work has already begun, but this plan, unfortunately, was not destined to come true.

While Shah Jahan was building a new tomb, his sons fought among themselves. Having defeated the brothers, one of them – Aurangzeb – seized power in 1658, killed the brothers, arrested his father and imprisoned him in the Red Fort under reliable guard along with his beloved daughter Jahanara Begum. Shah Jahan spent the last years of his life in the marble palace that he had once built for Mumtaz, from where he could constantly see the Taj Mahal. Here he died on January 23, 1666. Fulfilling the last will of his father, Aurangzeb the next day ordered his body to be transported to the Taj Mahal and to be buried next to Mumtaz without any ceremony or honor.

UNSOLVED SECRET

The Taj Mahal mausoleum stands alone in its inexpressible beauty on the banks of the blue Jamna, reflecting its clean, proud appearance. He appears as a vision from another, better, cleaner world. “The Taj Mahal has a secret that everyone feels, but no one can interpret.”

“The Taj Mahal attracts you like a magnet. You can stand for hours and all look and look at this marvel, at this fabulous ghost, ascending into a bottomless azure sky. The illumination of the Taj Mahal changes like a mirage. It glows from the inside, changing hues depending on the position of the sun: it suddenly turns light pink, then bluish, then pale orange. At night, under the moon, against a black sky, it looks dazzling white. Just coming very close, you notice that he is covered in the finest patterns woven over white marble, the marble blocks are encrusted with gems and seem to shine through, emitting a flickering light.”

The dazzling white walls of the mausoleum are covered with mosaics – garlands of flowers made of precious stones. Branches of white jasmine from mother-of-pearl shimmer with red pomegranate flower from carnelian and delicate tendrils of grapevine and honeysuckle, and delicate oleanders peek out from the lush green foliage. Each leaf, each petal is a separate emerald, yacht, pearl or topaz; sometimes there are up to one hundred of such stones for one branch of flowers, and there are hundreds of similar ones on the panels and grids of the Taj Mahal!

DEATH NOT SHARED

In the central hall of the mausoleum are two sarcophagi sculpted from white-pink rocks of marble, decorated with floral ornaments. These are the cenotaphs of the dead, symbolic projections of those who are in the lowest part of the mausoleum. There, in the underground vaulted room, dusk reigns. Both tombs with the remains of the royal spouses, Mumtaz and Jahan, like a screen, are surrounded by a white marble carved fence about two meters high, decorated with fabulous flowers – red, yellow, blue, along with green garlands, interlacing of marble leaves and flowers.

What is the power of the impression made by the Taj Mahal? Where does the insurmountable impact on everyone who sees it come from?

“Neither marble lace, nor the thin carving covering its walls, nor mosaic flowers, nor the fate of the beautiful queen — none of this alone could make such an impression. There must be a reason for something else. However, something in the Taj Mahal fascinated me and thrilled me. … It seemed to me that the mystery of the Taj Mahal is connected with the secret of death, i.e. with that secret, regarding which, in the words of one of the Upanishads, “even the gods were at first in doubt.” Above the tomb, where the queen’s body lies, a light burns. I felt that this is where the beginning of the clue lies. For the light shimmering over the tomb, where its dust lies, this light … is a small transient earthly life. And the Taj Mahal is a future eternal life.”

PLACE OF PILGRIMAGE

The creation of the Taj Mahal dates back to the time of the conquest of India by Muslims. The grandson of padishah Akbar Jahan was one of those conquerors who changed the face of a vast country. A warrior and statesman, Jahan was at the same time a fine connoisseur of art and philosophy; his courtyard in Agra attracted the most prominent scientists and artists of Persia, which at that time was the center of culture throughout West Asia.

The son of Jahan Aurangzeb (“the beauty of the throne,” 1665-1706) was nothing like his father. He was a stern, withdrawn and ascetic-religious monarch. While still a prince, he disapproved of the useless and devastating, as he believed, activities of his father. Aurangzeb spent his entire long and hectic life in military campaigns aimed at maintaining power over the empire.

Aurangzeb raised a rebellion against his father, accusing him of spending all the state revenue on the mausoleum. He imprisoned the former lord in an underground mosque in one of the inner palaces of the Agra fortress. Shah Jahan lived in this underground mosque for seven years; sensing the approach of death, he asked him to be transferred to the so-called Jasmine pavilion in the fortress wall, to the tower of lace marble, where was the favorite room of Queen Arjumand Bano. There, on the balcony of the Jasmine Pavilion overlooking the Jamna, from where the Taj Mahal was visible at a distance, Shah Jahan died.

This is the brief history of the Taj Mahal. Since then, the mausoleum of Queen Mumtaz has gone through many vicissitudes. During the wars that continued in India in the 17th and 18th centuries, Agra repeatedly passed from hand to hand and was often plundered. The conquerors removed the large silver doors from the Taj Mahal, carried out precious lamps and candlesticks, and tore ornaments from precious stones from the walls. However, the building itself and most of the decoration remained intact. The Taj Mahal is now restored and carefully guarded.

But today, the Taj Mahal is partially dressed in scaffolding due to the fact that cracks appeared on the walls. The marble Taj Mahal weighs many hundreds of thousands of tons. A huge mass presses on the soil, and it gradually settles. Over the past centuries, as a result of soil displacement, the mausoleum leaned toward the river, although it is invisible with a simple eye. Once the high-water Jamna came close to the building, but then the river became shallow and receded. This last circumstance changed the structure of the soil and also affected the stability of the mausoleum. Now it is decided to plant trees on the banks of the Jamna in order to stop soil erosion.

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Spirituality

Image of the Antichrist on a 14th-century fresco – who painted it and why?

The Antichrist, unlike Christ, the Son of God, is not the son of Satan, but a simple man. In Christian ideology, the Antichrist will appear shortly before the end of the world. Antichrist will be descended from Dan. This is one of the so-called 12 Tribes of Israel – the descendants of the sons of Jacob, who formed the Israeli people.

Antichrist will become an authoritative ruler of people, will arrange persecution of the righteous. This period in the Revelation of John the Theologian is called the Great Tribulation.

There was no specifics in the Bible about the Antichrist, so all further assumptions are futurism based on treatises of symbols and various interpretations. In particular, Calvinist Anthony Hoekema in his book “The Bible and the Future” believes that up to 75% of people will die during the Great Tribulation and this period will last for seven years.

And then, all Christians are united in this, there will be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the Last Judgment. When all sinners – both living and dead – will get what they deserve, the righteous will receive eternal paradise.

Christians were afraid of the Antichrist, so he was like Voldemort in Harry Potter – the one whose name cannot be called. Well, to portray him was generally forbidden.

The first image of the Antichrist appeared already in the XIV century. And its bold author – Vitale da Bologna – lived a transitional period from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It was during this period that it became possible to show freedom of creativity.

In northern Italy there is the Pomposa Monastery, which in the 9th century was founded by Benedictine monks. Over time, the monastery turned into a party place for people of art. The walls in the cathedral of this monastery were painted by Vitale da Bologna.


Even closer to the wall … Look at the bottom right … Take a closer look.


Here is the image of the Antichrist on the wall from an old Italian mural of the 14th century. 


Frescoes in the Cathedral of Pomposa, the image of the Antichrist is highlighted in red

Here lived the famous medieval musician Guido d’Arezzo. He reformed musical notation, prescribed a new scheme for the designation of keys and intervals. It’s d’Arezzo that we owe modern letter designations in music, for example C sharp major.

The famous Petr Damiani, a poet, philosopher and theologian, worked a lot in the monastery. Despite the fact that all art was saturated with Christianity (the culture of scholasticism of the Middle Ages!), creativity found its way. People tried to realize bold ideas for their time.

As often happens, where there is art and creativity, freedom of morals arises there. After all, art must be true. Art must find paradoxes in our reality, notice inconsistencies and vividly declare them! But art in the service of the state, in the strict framework of those in power, is already PR propaganda.

But back to our hero. He really wanted to add brightness to his religious canvases and he was drawn to ominous plots. After all, there you can truly imagine the whole storm of emotions!

The monks ordered the painting “The Last Judgment” from him. And Vitale da Bologna painted the walls of the cathedral at the request of the customer, and on the pretext of realism added the Antichrist there. And so this first image of the chief man who was in the service of Satan appeared.

However, customers demanded to depict it as disgusting as possible. The image of the Antichrist turned out to be some kind of fictional, phantasmagoric – more reminiscent of the devil from fairy tales. But the antichrist, as we recall, is a man!

Attempts to portray the Antichrist were made in the future, but these were more episodes. So, for example, the Antichrist was seen by another Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli.

Luca Signorelli. Fragment of the painting “The Sermon and Works of the Antichrist”, 1500

Here, the Antichrist looks like Christ, only with an ominous expression. And Satan whispers his thoughts, who looks like an ordinary petty demon.

And it is this picture of Signorelli, in our opinion, which better illustrates the real image of the Antichrist. He is an ordinary person. Which, most likely, will consider that it is doing the right thing and for the good of mankind. After all, logic is a double-edged weapon, it is always ready to justify any crime with great reasonable goals.

14th century fresco called “The Funeral of Satan”

In the Middle Ages, striped clothing was treated extremely negatively, there was even a case when a shoemaker was sentenced to death for wearing striped clothing. It happened in 1310 in the French city of Rouen. In those days, striped clothing was considered devilish.

Among the many excellent medieval frescoes in the Verona Cathedral, there is one especially curious. It is called “The Funeral of Satan” and depicts an enemy of the human race lying under a striped veil on his deathbed. Actually, it is the color of the veil and the appearance of Satan that attracts attention.

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Spirituality

A yogi who has lived for more than 70 years without food and water has passed away in India

In the Indian state of Gujarat, the yogi Prahlad Jani died at the age of 90, claiming to have discovered the “elixir of life,” which allows him not to eat food and water for at least 76 years, reports NDTV.

According to the assurances of the followers, and there was plenty of them at the holy hermit, Prahlad Jani died on May 26 in his native village of Charada, where he was brought at his personal request a few days ago. For two days, his body will be in the ashram so that followers can say goodbye to the mentor.

Prahlad Jani was known for statements that he has not eaten and has not drunk since childhood – according to some sources, from 8-9 years old, according to others, from 14. Doctors twice, in 2003 and 2010, conducted a comprehensive examination of Chunrival Mataji, as they called a yogi, and the second time he was two weeks under the supervision of employees of the Defense Institute of Physiology and Related Sciences of India. During this time, he did not eat a crumb, did not drink a drop, did not meet his natural needs, while his bladder was filled with a small amount of urine, but then it was absorbed into the walls.

“We still do not know how he survives,” said neurologist Sudhir Shah from a recent examination.

Jani himself assured that in childhood he was blessed by a goddess, after which he left his native home and refused food and water.

A number of foreign researchers questioned the findings of Indian colleagues, pointing to the imperfection of control systems.

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