Inextricably intertwined with the animals of the forest, with the rivers, the mountains, and the rocks, since time immemorial, has been the spiritual life of India, as Dr. Nanditha Krishna writes in her very beautiful book, Hinduism and Nature. The spiritual traditions of the East tend to have a kind, gentle, and reverent approach to the natural world.
The gods of the Vedas, the earliest books ever written, were all linked to nature. Indra is the god of rains and storms, thunder and lightning. Shiva lives at Mount Kailas, a great mountain in the land of snow and ice. We are all the children of Mother Earth.
God himself comes to earth in the forms of the animals. Lord Vishnu incarnates first as a fish; then as a turtle; then a wild boar; then a half-man, half lion; and only then as a human. Everything in nature is sacred. All animals and all of nature belong to god, all are in fact manifestations of god, and all, ultimately, are a sacred part of god.
Human beings are not given dominion over nature, but rather are expected to protect and care for the natural world, living in harmony with it.
As we struggle today with the reality of climate change, this is a book with many lessons for the times in which we live. Despite the grave concern that so many of us have about our destructive approach to nature – progress in changing human behavior just limps along, and so far, the destruction of the natural world seems to be not just continuing, but by some accounts is winning and gaining momentum.
Unfortunately, we tend to put climate change at the bottom of our collective list of priorities, and when we think of it at all – we think mainly in terms of benefit to humans. How many carbon footprints can we count – how much energy can we get from wind and solar? Really, this is a far cry from seeing ourselves as a part of nature – we are a long way from worshipping the trees, the mountains and the rivers, as our ancestors once did, even in Europe.
Some of us are appalled at the thought of worshipping anything at all (and this also is a western mindset). Heaven forbid that we should honor the sacredness of animals and plants. Instead, we objectify nature. We remain alienated from the earth and the beauty of all the living beings of the earth. Yet, if the earth is to survive, we will need to make an about-face. We need to acknowledge the intrinsic beauty and value of all life.
The most ancient books of Hinduism were composed in the forests, where sages and wise people lived.
Every village in India once had a sacred forest – maybe two acres, or maybe two hundred. Within the boundaries of this sacred grove, all life was sacred. Within these forests lived the gods that people worshipped. The trees and the animals were not to be harmed for any reason, though, in recent decades, many of these forests have fallen into disrepair. One of Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s foundations, the CPR Environmental Education Centre, has restored 53 of these sacred groves; and their upkeep is now being managed by local villages.
Most of one of the two great epics of India, the Ramayana, takes place inside forests, as the hero Rama travels throughout India traversing all the many different kinds of forest; there are spectacular descriptions of flowering trees and plants, and the graceful beauty of the wild animals.
Every river in India is a goddess – except for two who are male gods. Beautiful stories are told about these river goddesses. Because the river Ganges did not want to fall straight down to the earth out of fear that her great power might destroy the plants and animals below, she sought the help of Shiva. When she fell down from heaven to earth, the water power was caught in Shiva’s hair, in order to break the fall, then it fell gently down, from Shiva’s head, to the earth below. It still does today.
The land of India, north and south, is filled with sacred lakes, and sacred ponds known as “tanks”, which are artificial bodies of water, some created many centuries ago. These sacred bodies of water hold large amounts of rainfall to protect against droughts. Seeping from these ponds and tanks into the surrounding soil, the stored water is available to the plants and trees during times of water scarcity. Many of these tanks were built in times past by kings whose engineers understood the value of conserving water.
Even today, despite the deleterious effects of western influence, which is all too pervasive in India, particularly in the fields of science and education, there is a strong, vibrant love and respect for nature. There remains today, as always in the past, a profound reverence for all life – human, animal, plant, and the features of the landscape – the mighty rivers, mountains, and forests.
There is much that we in the west can learn from this great land, whose wisdom stretches back at least 5,000 years, and probably much, much farther. Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s beautifully written book, Hinduism and Nature, is a very good place to start on this journey to broaden our understanding of the earth and our place in nature.
On Friday, November 2, 2018 at 11 pm in Maharashtra, India, a tiger called Avni was shot and killed by the Forest Service, leaving her two ten-month old cubs, who are too young to survive on their own, without their mother. There has been a major outcry against this injustice in the Indian press. For details, you can google “Avni” – beware of numerous fabricated justifications (lies) being given by the authorities.
In Utah, in the U.S. (and in other states), hunting native big cats is not illegal. Every year in Utah the number of cougars allowed to be hunted is increased, despite the fact that there is no real data on the actual numbers of cougars left in the wild. This hunting season, the target for cougars has been raised from 581 to 642 – the equivalent of 61 additional, innocent “Avni’s” slated to lose their lives. (Please see the link below.)
A cougar is not a tiger and is not – not yet anyway – endangered. Not being endangered, however, is not a reason to allow the senseless killing of living animals – for the sole purpose of displaying their heads on the living room wall. Both tigers and cougars are astonishing, magnificent animals. And every other animal on earth – from the bright fish in the sea to the squirrels who are gathering their food for winter is a living, sentient being, whose life has worth and value.
Entirely apart from the consciousness and sentience of each living animal, to whom her life is as precious to her as ours is to us – we, as humans, are all connected to the world of nature.
This connectedness is extremely ancient knowledge, still alive in India – and, to some extent, in the west as well. In Hinduism, every God or Goddess is linked to an animal. The Goddess Durga, one of the forms of the wife of the great God Shiva, is also an independent, powerful deity in her own right. She is fierce, a warrior Goddess who fights and defeats evil. Durga and the tiger are inseparable.
This ferocity is also the nature of the tiger – powerful and dynamic, a mother who defends and protects her young. Or a male who represents the wild spirit of the forest.
The tiger is the essence of the wild – untamable and free.
Who would want to kill such a magnificent animal?
Paleolithic and neolithic people did hunt for survival, but not for sport.
Since the beginning of time, animals have been hunted for food by tribal people. For at least 10,000 years Native Americans lived off the land, hunting and fishing, as well as growing whatever vegetables they could. In the sixteenth century, when Europeans arrived on the shores of America, they found a land of unbelievable beauty and magnificence – filled with a vast abundance of wildlife and wild lands which had not been destroyed or diminished – which they promptly set about to demolish. This destruction continues unabated to this day, until there is not much left of the great wilderness that was once here.
Europeans, my ancestors and perhaps yours, brought with them a culture of dominance (over other peoples and nature), which is also a culture of alienation from the natural world. It’s a case of “us” and “them,” which proclaims, “I’m a human, and that thing over there, unfortunately, is just an ‘animal’ – just an object to be used for my benefit.”
We can see this thinking alive and well today in the way that the word “animal” is still being used, endlessly, sometimes to apply to anyone who is simply “other.” The word “animal” is also used for those who demonstrate disgusting or criminal behavior – despite the fact that animals are innocent beings, and no animal behaves, or thinks, like a criminal. The attribute of “viciousness” can logically apply only to humans, because it applies to malevolent intent, which animals simply do not have.
It is this malevolent intent which is the problem. Not all humans, thankfully, have this trait. And not all cultures either. It is something gone awry in the history of our race. If one goes far back to the time of the Romans, the Europeans, then pagan tribes, were worshipping trees and nature, just like other early peoples.
They had genuine spiritual traditions, really not so different from those of India, which were based on peace and harmony with nature. Not that they were entirely peaceful, they certainly weren’t, but there was an underlying premise of being at one with nature – of being part of one overall earth – of not being alienated or superior to this planet – and there was an absence of the desire to kill nature. (Sadly, western religions seem to have little to do now with their own origins, and they have, in large measure, been taken over by the western view which sees everything as a dichotomy.)
Killing a tiger, a cougar, a bear, or a wolf, is, in a way, emblematic of this malevolent intent – this destructive, evil force which has, to some extent, possessed the human race. These great archetypal animals seem to incite fear and to have a magical power within them – some sort of force, a will, which is untamed and untamable. They are hunted for no rational purpose – hunted to near extinction. No one in Utah, or elsewhere in the U.S., is in any reasonable danger of being killed by a cougar. We are in far more danger of being killed by our own cars, while we are driving them, than we are of being harmed by any of these animals.
There is something vastly irrational about the destruction that we as humans are inflicting on the earth. We have already destroyed 60% of the animals on the planet. We have turned half of the earth’s land mass into farm land, destroying forests and natural ecosystems.
With our artificial chemicals pouring into waterways, we are rapidly poisoning the ocean – as well as the air and the land. And, as we know, we are destroying the climate.
Since we are dependent on the earth for our survival, there is absolutely nothing sane or rational about these human activities. They are like a suicidal madman waving about a bomb that is about to detonate.
Yes, of course, there is an element of greed and self-centeredness in the way humans go about taking over and then obliterating all life on the planet. But this, in itself, is really not a rational explanation for the obsessive level of destruction that is taking place.
One might posit that there is some underlying, driving, unconscious force which compels us to behave in this immensely self-destructive way. We seem to want to kill ourselves.
This major isolation and alienation from nature which has taken hold of us is propelling us toward a cliff, a bottomless abyss — and seems to predetermine our will as a species, and our actions.
Yet, although this is, I am aware, profoundly gloomy, there is something else also, a certain light – which lies in the fact that not all of humanity has always behaved in this self-destructive way.
Ancient people saw themselves as part of the earth, as, ultimately being at one with the animals, the trees, the rivers, and all life. Even today, especially among those cultures and countries not altogether swept up in the falsehoods of the modern worldview, there are remnants and in some cases the reawakening of a true realization that we are the earth and the earth is us. We are all one, intertwined and interrelated.
There is, moreover, a dynamic, and growing movement, all over the planet, both east and west, to return to, and go forward with, the knowledge and vision of deep reverence for the world of nature and the sacredness of all life.
This is the great end battle. Nature, of course – even if it takes several millennia — will recover and will win, in this world or in another. The question that remains is — will we join with nature, protecting her as the earth, our mother, or will we, as a species, self-destruct? We shall see.
In the meantime, each of us can open our eyes and our hearts — and live, as best we can, in harmony and peace with the natural world and its numinous, alive, wild presence – encountered in the wonderful, fiery eyes of the tiger and in all of nature.
Link to Salt Lake Tribune article about cougar hunting:
Industrialization, like oil, coal, fracking, uranium, and copper mining are prioritized by legislation passed in the U.S. Congress, going back to the General Mining Act of 1872. One might be under the mistaken view that the job of the BLM is to protect the land and the wildlife that live there, but this could not be farther from the truth. Coal heaps line some of the roads through BLM lands. Coal trucks spew giant dust clouds visible a mile away. Because of coal, waterways are contaminated with mercury. They are also clogged by the feet of grazing cows, who, by the way, drink the polluted water, and then are sold for slaughter, later to become someone’s dinner. This is tragic for the cows, and for the lands and wildlife on 155 million acres of government land, where their feet trample delicate native plants, young saplings, streams, creeks, and wild bird habitat – destroying the natural world. The cattle industry is, as well, one of the leading factors tipping the earth towards death by climate change.
In among these lands are still to be found thousands of sites sacred to Native Americans – these, despite efforts to protect them, are being vandalized. Burial grounds are ridden over by ATV’s and petroglyphs defaced.
State and federal wildlife agencies which one might hope would be caretakers for the wilderness, instead seem to manage wildlife with a view towards eradicating wild carnivores: coyotes, cougars, bears, and bobcats, meanwhile focusing on growing to record numbers deer and elk herds, so there will be more for hunters to kill.
How did all this come about? It is not only the ancient peoples of the Americas, Asia, and Africa that felt a kinship and a reverence for the wild animals around them.
If one goes back far enough in European history, to pagan times, one finds that there was a widespread reverence for the land, the earth, and the animals. There was worship of the World Tree. Serpent goddesses were revered in Crete. In Finland, for example, Ukko was the ruler of the sky and thunder. In this far northern country, there was a goddess of the forest, a goddess of the moon, a goddess of the wilderness, and countless nature spirits. The most sacred water bird was the swan. Throughout Europe, in pagan times, the gods and goddesses of nature were worshipped.
In the Eleventh Century, Christian missionaries entered Finland, and, as they did throughout the world, embarked on a crusade to purge the country of the original faith. Remnants of the old ways carried on, however, here and there, and even today, the ancient religion has been brought back and is still practiced by some. (This perversion of Christianity, by the way, had nothing to do with the original Jesus Christ, who loved nature, and, to commune with God, was known for going up into wild areas of the mountains to pray.)
By the time of the advance of European civilization across the globe in the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, the worldview of regarding nature as something to be subdued and conquered had become fully entrenched. Slavery, genocide, and colonialism – brutality to human beings – went hand-in-hand with brutality towards nature and the philosophy that nature was created solely for the benefit of humans and had no worth of its own. The influence of this worldview is still widely prevalent today and is ensconced in American law and practice with regard to wild lands. Exploitative and utilitarian forces remain in control, and regardless of the known impacts of climate change and the destruction of wild species and their habitat, nothing changes. Despite a vast array of conservation laws that have been passed and measures that have been put in place by good people who do care, American wild lands and wild species are still, perhaps more than ever before, being exterminated and systematically destroyed. It seems that our basic intentions, as a society, to dominate and harm nature, do unerringly find a way to override or bypass any conservation legislation. We may feel that this is not true, but it is happening.
All over the world there are megalithic monuments with alignments to the Winter Solstice. At the moment of the Winter Solstice a beam of light from the sun strikes the deepest recesses of an underground sacred temple, as at Newgrange in Ireland or Maeshowe in Orkney, Scotland.
In the New World, at Chaco Canyon in new Mexico, the Sun Dagger at Fajada Butte marks both the Summer and Winter solstices, as well as other important celestial alignments.
The significance of the Winter Solstice is that this point in time every year marks the darkest time of the year; the death point if you wish, and at the same time, the return of the light. It is the time, when the sun, having reached the moment when the days are the shortest, returns, and the days begin to grow longer.
The light returns, and with it comes the promise of spring and summer, the rebirth of the world.
This is also the message of Christmas – and for that matter, it is a message in many religions, not only Christianity. At the hour of greatest darkness, the light returns, having conquered the darkness.
Interestingly, it is also the message of Jesus’s death and resurrection. The moment of crucifixion is followed in three days (actually a day and a half according to the Biblical account) by the resurrection, as life overcomes death.
Winter itself represent cold, darkness, and death. It is the time when nothing grows and every being that can, takes shelter or hibernates, waiting for a change of seasons and the return of spring. In warmer lands, the rainy season, or even the sun-baked, dry season may represent the time when one seeks shelter and waits, for a more propitious time – for a change of the seasons.
Though today the Winter Solstice occurs on December 21 or 22, the festival of Mithra, who was the god of light in ancient Iran, was celebrated from December 17 to December 24. The Romans adopted these dates for a festival to their god Saturn, which lasted several days and ended on December 25 – a date then later adopted by Christians as the birthday of Jesus.
When or what time of year Jesus was actually born isn’t relevant in this context. The symbolic meaning has a significance that lies beyond the historical dates.
Life is cyclic. Life follows death, and death follows life. Both are two sides of the same coin. In the darkest hour, when there seems to be the least hope, the light returns, and a new age begins.
Photographer: Rhion Pritchard / “I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.” / Bryn Celli Ddu in Wales, which has an alignment with the Summer Solstice.
In the Introduction to his very fascinating book, Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization, published in 2002, Graham Hancock presents the theory that the worldwide myths of a Great Flood, which are told in every corner of the world, will soon be accepted as established scientific fact. He contends that between 17,000 and 8,000 years ago, the earth underwent a series of tremendous cataclysms, which transformed the planet. Modern humans who, according to science, had already existed for around 200,000 years, had been around long enough to have evolved a high civilization, which was destroyed during these cataclysms. The remains of their extremely ancient cities are now to be found submerged under the oceans.
At the end of the last Ice Age, the enormous glaciers which covered much of the land masses of the earth, melted, causing sea levels worldwide to rise many meters. Since then, as now, humans tended to concentrate their populations on the seashores, when the glaciers melted and the seas rose, these cites were submerged, and their existence forgotten, except in myth and legend.
In recent decades, many of these ancient ruins under the seas have come to light. As a diver, Graham Hancock has explored many of them himself – and these explorations form the topics of Underworld. They are controversial; in some cases, it is unclear whether they are natural rock formations or whether they are manmade. When the ancient ruins are clearly manmade, not natural, often their dates are very much in dispute.
His first example is the ruins found in the Bay of Bengal, off the east coast of India, near Nagapattinam, which were investigated by the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in the early 1990’s. The investigation was headed by well-known and widely-respected marine archaeologist T.C.S. Rao, who Graham Hancock interviewed several years later.
In the Bay of Bengal, five kilometers out to sea, at a depth of 23 meters, lies a horseshoe shaped manmade structure, surrounded by walls that are one meter thick and two meters high. There are at least three structures there, perhaps more. 23 meters is over 70 feet deep. According to oceanographers investigating underwater ruins on the other side of India, off the western coast, 10,000 BCE would have been the date for ruins found there at the Gulf of Kutch at 60 feet below the surface of the water. The water level would be the same on both coasts of India, so the Bay of Bengal structures must also extend back to around 10,000 BCE. These structures off the coast of Nagapattinam are incredibly old – far older than any traditional dates for the beginning of civilization.
Underworld is a lengthy and complex book, filled with many details. In it Graham Hancock also writes about his dives around the rock structures known as Yonaguni off the coast of Japan. It has not been definitely determined whether or not these are manmade. He also writes extensively about the ancient temples of Malta – and about a number of other sites around the world which, it seems, are “impossibly” old.
Since Graham Hancock wrote Underworld eleven years ago, the body of evidence that there were extremely ancient civilizations, far older than any we could have imagined just a couple of decades ago, has only grown and grown. The case for high civilizations which once existed, the ruins of which sank beneath the waves, is gaining strength as every year passes.
To find Graham Hancock’s Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization on Amazon, click here.
Top photo: Sharon St Joan / the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram, on the Bay of Bengal.
Second photo: Sharon St Joan / Waters of the Bay of Bengal at Mahabalipuram.
Third photo: Berthold Werner /Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.” / Malta, Tarxien temples, altar. Believed to have been built between 3150 – 2500 BCE.
Susan Boyle came from a humble background in Scotland; her father was a miner and her mother a typist. Until her mother died she lived with her, and she now lives with her beloved cat.
For years she struggled to achieve some success with her music. Recently, she was diagnosed with Asperger’s Disease, which could explain why her social relationships had always been awkward. Most of her life she had been been subjected to ridicule, and must have endured many unhappy and very trying times — until that one evening, in which, like a rocket leaving the bounds of earth, she shot into stardom.
Illustrating how not to be a victim — Susan Boyle’s is a rags-to-riches story, which, in its own way, is a testimony to the great power of not allowing oneself to remain victimized, but instead, with the help of the angels, of magically overcoming obstacles. It is a simple story – she has not transformed the entire world, but it is a remarkable one, and has certainly altered her own life and touched the lives of many others.
Her strength is not only her musical talent itself, but her undying faith in her music.
None of us has to remain stuck in the box that we find ourselves in.
The second example of rising above limitations is Nelson Mandela. A figure on an altogether different scale, he was one of the great men of history, who had a transformative impact on our world. Though he came from a tribal royal family, as a boy, he herded sheep, then became a boxer, then a lawyer. When he was imprisoned for 27 years, spending part of the time breaking rocks in a quarry, it must have seemed to him, that there could be no hope even for his own freedom, let alone hope for any success in his life.
If he had emerged from prison, embittered, to lead his people on a crusade to make his oppressors pay for their crimes, that would hardly have been a surprising turn. Yet he didn’t. Somewhere he found the grace and wisdom to forgive his captors and to lead South Africa beyond the threat of a bloodbath, into the light, to stand as a democratic nation. In the process, he spared the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and avoided a prolonged time of darkness for generations of South Africans. South Africa is not a perfect country. No country is, but it has avoided these catastrophes, thanks to the wisdom and greatness Nelson Mandela.
Neither of these two people, very different from each other in their scope and their impact, is a saint. They are examples of people who did not allow themselves to remain victims, but instead, with the grace of the angels, overcame and rose above obstacles.
We do not have to be victimized by our circumstances, sinking under the weight of our situation, and blaming heaven, the stars, or those around us for the obstacles in our lives.
There is always a higher level, where God, the Gods, the angels, the universe (or whatever we wish to call the spiritual level) live — and it is from this level that strength can be drawn and magic and miracles can come into being.
To return to the concept of the myth of progress – it would be a great mistake to confuse this higher level of otherworldly strength, inspiration, and clarity, which occasionally breaks through the clouds, with the current, ongoing state of the human world in which we live.
Were we to put our faith in the “human spirit” or in the “inevitability” of human progress and the advance of human technology, we would find ourselves sadly misled. We ought not to sit waiting for the train of human “progress” to carry us along to utopia, because it won’t.
Many of us, probably most of us, have seen miracles happen – of one kind or another. Miracles are very real. They come from beyond and above the level of this world.
The world does not get better by itself, and, sadly, human nature does not make it better. There is no inevitable progress of the “human spirit.” We are not the culmination of evolution, and we have not, in creating the “wonders of civilization” brought peace and enlightenment even to ourselves, much less to animals and the natural world. Instead we have left a trail of destruction in our wake. And the natural world seems to be reminding us of this regrettable fact through rising tides, catastrophic storms, and other upheavals.
Yet all is not lost, and if – beyond the smoke and mirrors of the image we have fabricated, as a species, of our own success – this is, in truth, a dark hour and a dark age, there is still a real light at the end of the tunnel.
Consider this – a curtain is being lifted that had long veiled the past. All over the world are being found now, in recent decades, remarkable archeological discoveries that speak to us of great civilizations, with magnificent art and culture, that we did not even know existed, and some are many thousands of years earlier than the accepted dates for the beginnings of civilization. (We will be writing more about these.)
The cyclical view of history informs us that this age of limitations that we live in is neither the only age nor the last age.
There is much, much more to the Cosmos than we know – other levels, other dimensions — more to the past and more to the future.
Our “modern world” is not the pinnacle of creation, it has an ocean of problems. But as we come to acknowledge this, there are great gates that swing open – to the magnificence and mysteries of the very distant past – and to the possibilities of magic and miracles, both in our own lives and in the world ages that lie before us – possibilities of nearly-forgotten connections with higher mystical levels and the restoration and renewal of the natural world of innocence that we have so nearly destroyed.
As our current world age dims, other lights of intelligence, perception, and clarity—those, older and wiser, who were here before — will re-awaken and shine again.
The thoughts expressed here are personal views that do not reflect or represent those of any organization.
To look at Sharon’s ebook, Glimpses of Kanchi, on Amazon, click here.
Top photo: Wikimedia Commons: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Attribution: Laura SA at the English language Wikipedia / Mapungubwe Hill, a sacred hill in the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in pre-colonial South Africa.
Second photo: As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. / President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela at the Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA, July 4 1993.
Third photo: Author (photographer): Teomancimit / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. / The 12,000 year old megalithic ruins of Gobekli Tepe, Urfa, Turkey.
Fourth photo: “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted.” / This stellar swarm is M80 (NGC 6093), one of the densest of the 147 known globular star clusters in the Milky Way galaxy…all of the stars in the cluster have the same age (about 15 billion years)….
It’s not that there’s no such thing as progress. Indeed there is.
If I want to travel around the world, I’ll take a plane. I won’t set out walking, or take a sailing ship, or sit by the roadside waiting for a magic carpet to appear out of the clouds.
If I fall down the stairs and break a leg, I will go to the hospital because waiting for it to get better by itself is not going to work well.
If I want to go into town I will use a car, not a horse and buggy.
All this being said, there is a very large aspect of the way we think about progress in the modern world that is illusory. It is not true.
Really, there are two ways of viewing history — the cyclical view and the linear view.
In the cyclical view, there are several ages, following each other, until eventually, the whole complete world cycle ends and begins anew.
If we’ve grown up in the west or if we’ve been heavily influenced by western culture, then we are going to lean towards the linear view of world history. It’s imprinted inside our heads, and, without our being conscious of it, it colors most of our perceptions and expectations.
According to the western worldview, history is linear. First there is prehistory and then there is an ascending line on an upwards trajectory, which is called “progress.” It is a basic part of our thinking. If we look far enough back into the past, we see hunter/gatherers, the introduction of farming, the invention of the wheel, the beginnings of civilization. Pretty soon along come the Greeks and the Romans. Then there are the middle ages, the renaissance, the industrial revolution, then along come lots of inventions, like central heating, TV, computers, and sending a man to the moon. (As you can see, this is all very Eurocentric.) It all goes upward and ever upward, as we humans progress to higher levels of technology and “better” lives.
But this is not the only way to view the past and the present. For many cultures throughout the world, there has traditionally been another model of history. In India, and also among many other peoples, including Native Americans in both North and South America, history has been seen as cyclical. Even the Greeks and the Romans believed in a succession of ages, and there is a reference to this view also in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel.
One of the key differences between these two views is that, from the cyclical worldview, “progress” isn’t necessarily progress, and our “inevitable” evolution upwards to grander and grander heights is very much in doubt.
In other word, things may not inevitably be getting better and better, and our common sense tends to agree with this observation. It may be that, all this time, the human race has been de-volving instead of e-volving.
Let’s look at it this way for a moment. There is a good chance, since you are reading this, that you live a fairly comfortable existence. This is not necessarily true, and there can be exceptions, but most likely, you are not living in a hut made of old tires and rusty hubcaps, on the banks of what used to be a river, but is now a creek filled with garbage. Instead, you have a nice home. In your home there is most likely central heating, air conditioning, a TV, computers – it is a place with modern conveniences.
We enjoy our central heating because it keeps us warm, and we wouldn’t have been happy in the European middle ages, where even aristocrats lived in cold castles – and peasants lived in squalid huts. We may say to ourselves that whatever view of history may be true (and whatever personal problems we might currently have), things are far better now in the modern world than they used to be hundreds of years ago. If we say this, then what we are expressing is a western/modern perspective; and whatever country we may live in, this is a middle or upper class view.
Suppose for a moment that instead of being you or me, living in our comfortable surroundings, we are a poor child in a developing country who lives on a giant mound of garbage which she picks through from morning to night to make a few cents a day. Suppose we are one of the billions of people who have no clean water to drink. Or one of the billions who live in horrible slums. Suppose we live in a war-torn region of central Africa, where there is hardly even a memory of any security or safety?
You and I are exceptions, and though we all do have our own problems and difficulties, (which may from time to time seem insurmountable), generally speaking, we are blessed to live in fairly decent or even very comfortable circumstances.
This means that, unless we stop to think and look around us, we may not notice that most people in the world live in conditions far worse than they would have lived in hundreds or thousands of years ago. Is it really true that the average person in the world is better off now? No, it really isn’t.
If we had lived around the year 2300 BCE in the city of Mohenjo Daro, part of the ancient Indian Indus Valley civilization, now in modern Pakistan, we might well have lived in a two story house, with a plumbing system, a furnace, and an inner courtyard lined with trees. We would have lived in clean, comfortable surroundings in a well-designed, beautiful city.
If we had lived around 1500 BCE in the Minoan city Knossos on the island of Crete, we would have lived in a city that delivered clean water through pipes into the homes of around 100,000 people and had an advanced plumbing and sewage system. We would have been surrounded by a vibrant culture that produced beautiful art, which can still be seen in murals on the walls of Knossos.
I can hear a voice saying, but wait – these two examples are not typical! Okay, that may be true; if these two advanced societies might be considered exceptions on the world stage, then what about life in a tribal society?
Top photo: Author (artist): Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1848–1926) / Wikimedia Commons /”This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. Such reproductions are in the public domain in the United States.”
Second photo: “This work has been released into the public domain by its author, JW1805 at the wikipedia project. This applies worldwide.” / Wikimedia Commons / A bust of Homer in the British Museum, London.
Third photo: Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 1.0 License.” / Original uploader was M.Imran at en.wikipedia / The great bath at Mohenjo Daro.