Tag Archive: cyclical history


Yoruba bronze head, 12th century.

Yoruba bronze head, 12th century.

By Sharon St Joan

To read part one first, click here

Hundreds of years ago, if you had lived in a small village in central Africa, before its “discovery” by Europeans, you might have lived in a thatched roof hut that kept out the sun and the rain, with a dirt floor that was swept clean every day. From birth to death, you would have lived in a stable community of your friends and relatives, in a society where you belonged and had a place, where there was work to be done, as well as a rich tradition of art, music, and a spiritual life. If you were walking through the forest, and you felt thirsty, it would have been entirely safe to drink from the clear, sparkling waters of a stream. Although you would not have had what we would call luxury, you would have known a world of trees, sky, animals, and the early morning mist that floated over the river where the elephants gathered. You would have lived in the untouched beauty of the natural world.

If you became ill, you would have been treated with herbal remedies, their efficacy tested by being passed down through generations. If you were dying, your village would have gathered around you, singing prayers for you, as your soul left to go on its journey.

At that time, back then, there were no GMO crops or insecticide-laden foods, no miles and miles of plastic trash, no debris littering the ocean floor, no smog-choked cities, no factory farms, no miles of concrete where once there had been forests filled with wild animals, no industrial waste, no nuclear waste, no trash on the moon or in outer space. Yes, horrible things could and did happen, then as now, but it could be argued, nonetheless, that the scale of horror was much less then, than it is today.

Certainly, very bad things could take place. It would have been possible to be eaten by an animal — though a lion at that time, living in a more undisturbed habitat, might have been less likely then, than now, to attack a human. Still being eaten would not have been pleasant.

A lion in Namibia.

A lion in Namibia.

But which is worse really, to be eaten quickly by a lion in the darkness of the night, or to be eaten piecemeal over many decades by human greed, hypocrisy, mediocrity, corruption, and the soul-destroying nibbles that kill off all life and destroy the natural world?

If we look closely, with open eyes, we will be able to see quite clearly that the modern world, for most people and for most animals, for the trees, and the earth itself is suffering, on an unprecedented scale. In our climate-controlled houses and apartments, we live in a bubble, wrapped up in our technology, yet still cut off from many realities of much of the world.

The moon in the western sky, California.

The moon in the western sky, California.

Nevermind that we as a society have gone to the moon and back – is our civilization peaceful, enlightened, kind, gracious? No, it really isn’t.

We tend to resist this imperfect view of history. We cling to the view we were taught in school. After all, there is something comforting in imagining that we are at the summit of human existence and that everything has led steadily upwards, culminating in the grandeur that is us.

So, if perhaps we have realized that we are not quite as grand as we had imagined, if we have begun to suspect that we, as the human race, are all slipping and sliding inexorably downhill, in this corrupt and miserable current age, does that mean that all is hopeless? Should we give up trying to do anything meaningful? Should we just sit down under a tree, hold our head in our hands, and accept the fact that we are doomed?

Should we just forget any causes that we’re devoting our life to – any more meaningful purpose, like freeing people from oppression, saving innocent animals from suffering, or saving the forests and the earth’s wild places?

Should we just decide that everything is impossible and give up?

No, because however dark the world may be, magic and miracles are always possible because, by definition, they come from a higher level that is not bound by human limitations.

A couple of contemporary examples might help. I’m reminded of a couple of people who have not been content to stay put in the boxes the found themselves in. They are completely different from each other. Here is the first one.

Susan Boyle at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 2013

Susan Boyle at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 2013

If you haven’t done so already, it’s worth watching Susan Boyle on YouTube when she appeared in 2009 on Britain’s Got Talent. It’s worth watching just to see the expressions of the judges on the show change from bored condescension to joyful astonishment. It was clear that the contestant on the stage in front of them, Susan Boyle, at that first appearance, had not the slightest idea how to present herself well, and the three judges were ready to dismiss her as a silly, ridiculous figure – until she began to sing, at which point they opened their mouths and raised their eyebrows in incredulity. Before she had finished singing, these rather jaded judges sprang to their feet, along with the entire audience, all applauding, one judge, Piers Morgan, stating that this was the greatest surprise in all his time with the show.

Her immensely powerful and profoundly expressive, beautiful voice seemed to spring from another realm that had nothing to do with her awkward appearance. Within the next nine days after the show, her videos had been viewed over 100 million times. Her debut album was a record-breaking success, and she has soared to stardom since then and is a multimillionaire many times over.

To be continued in part three…

To read part three, click here.

 

 

Top photo: “This work has been released into the public domain by its author, WaynaQhapaq at the English Wikipedia project. This applies worldwide.” / Wikimedia commons / “Yoruba bronze head from the city of Ife, 12 century.”

 

Second photo: Author (photographer): Kevin Pluck / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.” / A lion in Namibia.

 

Third photo: Author (photographer): Jessie Eastland / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / Wikimedia Commons / “Western Moon setting over Mountains, High Desert, California.”

 

Fourth photo: Author (photographer): Wasforgas / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / “Susan Boyle singing at the Edinburgh Festival Theater, July 12, 2013.”

 

© Sharon St Joan, 2013

 

To see the video of Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent, click here

 

 

 

Flying on a magic carpet.

Flying on a magic carpet.

By Sharon St Joan

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.

The Greek poet, Homer.

The Greek poet, Homer.

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.

The great bath at Mohenjo Daro.

The great bath at Mohenjo Daro.

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.

The Throne Room at Knossos.

The Throne Room at 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?

To be continued in part two…

To read part two, click here.

 

Photos:

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.

Fourth photo: “This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Throne_Hall_Knossos.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.”

 

 © Sharon St Joan, 2013

To find Sharon’s ebook, Glimpses of Kanchi, on Amazon, click here.