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A moment is not intrinsically longer or shorter than a century, except in relation to an element of consciousness by which it is possible to establish its direction and measure its duration… Yet human time is the only unit of measure that we can understand.
Alain Daniélou 1
The rhythm of the seasons — winter has opened up again, it feels cold outside. Last time too, winter was hit, marked with burning iron, right at its heart, in early January. Seasons, months have their cycles, their repetitions always a bit different, cumulative, but this year seems marked irrevocably, we call it “2015”, a temporal scene for what many have seen as the entry of France, of Europe, into a new phase of “world history”. Yes, the cycle regularly breaks — somewhere between months, seasons and years, each time, Nature stops and enters History. From the cycle to the linear. The Past is behind us, only the Future is ahead: we must respond. Happy New Year!
419 964 B.C.E From India to Europe, Daniélou brings spaces across times. “The Theory of Cycles”, a section from his While the Gods Play (La Fantaisie des Dieux et l’Aventure Humaine) offers to colour, not unpleasantly, an ancestral doctrine in the shades of our language of today. Myths find their translation in “our world”:
Using these dates as a starting point and going back, we find that the first manifestation of humanity came forth in 419,964 B.C., the second in 359,477 B.C., the third in 298,990 B.C., the fourth in 238,503 B.C., the fifth in 178,016 B.C., the sixth in 118,529 B.C., and the seventh in 58,042 B.C. 2
Tasteless mix des genres or long-awaited bridge between cultures? Daniélou’s text is passionate, confident, deaf to the dictates of “academic norms” and their partiality, certainly as powerful thirty years back as they are today. Daniélou writes differently, he writes as he felt, as he experienced, as he lived and learnt, humble and receptive to another story, different in its content but also in its methods. One can hear the echo of an introspective, traditional teacher, when Daniélou decides to quote at length the Linga Purana or Vishnu Purana, knowing that his touch is not missing, even if his commentary only adds a few more lines to the long citation. Daniélou lived another experience of knowledge, and yet he also brought it back to a Western audience. Not only through publications, when many translations already abound, but by mixing languages, by attempting to bring translation to another depth. By playing with “science” and its idiom, perhaps, with the myths of linear time, for instance, for provocation’s sake if nothing else. He suggests the following: we are part of the 7th human cycle, forcibly yet unconsciously modest before what is already a story half-a-million-years old: humans, and humanities. 419 964 B.C.E: all of a sudden, the time frame pops, the scale widens, up to our own horizon… and far beyond.
As Christmas is nearing, we may remember, this time, the gift of Daniélou: he reminds us of the possibility of thinking and living on the long scale. Winter time, not too far from the cold showers and the wake-up call out of our cosy blankets: when our horizon of past human culture jumps from the 3,000 years of the Greek-Semitic-Roman-European-Global narrative, to 60,000 years — the beginning of the present cycle — and finally to 420,000 years. As the past moves back, each bit of the present changes form and colour. Migrations cramping lands, terrors throwing us towards “the last destruction”: as time and space seem to shrink, there is perhaps always Daniélou’s aplomb to remind us that our world has been much different, and much more than what our diminishing sight considers its limit: the supposed “foundations” of our world through the development and encounters of Greek and Semitic cultures in the course of the last three millennia. There was “something” before that, elsewhere, “faraway”, over there, in the comfortably distant lands of the exotic… but there was also “something” else here, right here — in the Athens of the philosophers, in the Jerusalem of the Christ, in the Syria of the Islamic State and in the Paris of the “2015 attacks”.
Day and night, evening, Friday, week, weekend, months, seasons: another time is there, and it is there not at the margins but right at the centre of our lives.
There was, and there still is. 13 November 2015, a weekend in France, young and old generations push away routine and jobs to where they belong, and go for a drink at a café. Day and night, evening, Friday, week, weekend, months, seasons: another time is there, and it is there not at the margins but right at the centre of our lives. Living through cycles, repetitions, rites and habits. But these attacks will be the “attacks of 2015” — enter “2015”, already taking over the memories of the attacks “of a winter Friday night in Paris”, the tyranny of numeration, system, measure, and thus reference, the unsurpassable reference. 2015 years after this reference, this point assumed as the neutral zero, as the beginning, but in fact culturally partial, intensely particular. As long as these are the “attacks of 2015”, resources and inspirations to respond correctly, or just to continue living faithfully, will be constrained by this frame — 2015, it was 2015, and even after the 31st December, it will remain 2015, forever. Fantasising that we are at our “beginnings” of culture, we will not be able to think and live those moments beyond Greek thought and Semitic religiosity.
Mentalities have evolved since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. While in the countryside, the old France of all ages confuses past and future by going for the blind pragmatism of the Front National, the younger generation, target of the 13th of November, is no longer proclaiming the slogans of “the Republic” and of the amalgamation of identities (“I am Charlie”). No, indeed — effective performance of democracy, the peuple questions the immediate reaction of the belligerent state, realising that its effects will be counter-productive, and the invoked roots of the situation, erroneous. Away from our sight, the manicheaism of “the isolated criminals”, or even of “the barbarous organisation, arch-enemy of civilisation”. “It is the reactive psychology of a destroyed generation in the Middle-East”, we hear somewhere; “It is the oil economy”, others respond. Going further back in time, connections with colonial heritages are also mentioned. But always, the matrix of Greek-Christian values is the ceiling — history, science, objectivity, democracy, equality, representation, compassion are the silent assumptions. Digging the deeper roots of our inter-connected reality is always a welcome effort, but the question to ask thus becomes: When should we stop? Why should we take the so-called first millennium before the common era as the unquestionable bedrock for our chronology and our values? To this very thread of cultures, Daniélou submits: It is just the tip of the iceberg. Only the middle phase of the fourth and last age of the present humanity: Kali Yuga, time of confrontations of differences, the age of destruction.
“The date 3102 B.C., which marks the beginning of the Kali Yuga, represents a cosmological reality linked with an alternation in influx from the planetary spheres; it is not an arbitrary date. Its influence is felt everywhere in the world. Differences in the estimation of this date derive from varying methods of calculation.” 3
The intuition of the Yuga, putting on various cultural dresses across societies, would be thus a universal conception, beyond its Indian accent. There would be, besides and above the evident cycles of our everyday life, a stronger, long-scale conception of time that would transcend, and precede the positivistic, linear doctrine that took prominence in the development of our European civilisations. Returning to a cyclical understanding of time, and not just for the daily routine of our farmers and city-dwellers alike, is perhaps the actual challenge of this event, the opportunity of the moment of crisis (krinein): perhaps a real, profound decision that could finally extricate us from the entanglement of our questions and their solutions.
The specific details of this narration of time, proper to a certain lineage of Shaiva doctrine, further reinterpreted by Daniélou, is not decisive. In fact, a more classical “social scientist” approach would generally differ largely from Daniélou’s calculation, when it translates the various frames of the Yuga doctrine into the linear frame of Greek and Semitic time references. But Daniélou helps us make the jump — further underlining the deconstruction of the deepest assumptions of “the West”, he succeeded in demonstrating an alternative narrative that would be equally rigorous, potentially more powerful hermeneutically, and ultimately more empowering for each individual.
And this shift is effective beyond contemplative enquiries. “Returning to a cyclical understanding of time” — what would that imply? It may well point towards very concrete alternatives, far more practical than even global strategies and realpolitik. When our understanding of time moves from the line to the cycle, each temporal instance changes in nature. No more “events” in a cyclical time, no more politics with an ideological horizon and dream, but recurring patterns, playing roles and performing functions in the macro-cycles of the planet just as in the micro-cycles of each nation, each community, each relationship and each individual. “One of the fundamental conceptions of Shaiva philosophy is that each form of existence, animated or inert, each living species, has a role to fulfil in the play of creation…” 4 No more terrorists, no more democracy, no more before or after: references crumble and fall, and all pieces move on a much wider grid. In discovering cyclical time, the constructivism of a positivistic mindset is replaced by the internal connection of past and future in the present. When the line of time bends towards itself, the appearance of events shades off and something else emerges. But what?
Condensation of time and space towards the inside — the echoes of a universal practice resurface: the ritual. If the attacks of 13 November were interpreted in a cyclical framework of time, then it may be our chance to call for the return of our rituals, so they may find their place more regularly, and integrate such apparent turmoils.
As we round our corner, this occasion may present us with a long awaited re-discovery. Starting again to read our present through our deep past, the dimensions of time and space condense. Our landmarks have disappeared: a “disruption” separating a phase of time from its past, along a linear scale, becomes a reiterated scenario; while our political cognitivity, this fundamental undertone of our metaphysics of space, always gazing outside for fear of losing what is inside, gets reinterpreted as an introspective call, deconstructing and creatively arranging the universal categories of in/out and self/other. Condensation of time and space towards the inside — the echoes of a universal practice resurface: the ritual. If the attacks of 13 November were interpreted in a cyclical framework of time, then it may be our chance to call for the return of our rituals, so they may find their place more regularly, and integrate such apparent turmoils. In his Hinduism, Past and Present, Axel Michaels too considers moments of disturbance as renewed occasions for rituals:
“Change is ritualized especially in the divisions of time: dawn and dusk, the equinox, new and full moon, the change of the moon in a new constellation, the new year, eclipses of the sun and moon. It is not the proliferation of time or its continuum that demand rituals, but rather the interruptions, changes, and transitions.” 5
“Yet human time is the only unit of measure that we can understand…” What could this “human time” become, once the lesson of Daniélou is heard and brought to fruition? As the scale of our past grows a hundredfold, each human life becomes unbearably smaller, seemingly insignificant before the dynamics of human cultures spread like tentacles over hundreds of thousands of years. But meaning survives and shines, for we are to find new modes of understanding. If the 3000-year-old narrative of European civilisation thus appears as a grave reduction, it is not for us to give up all hopes of cultural construction and collective values. Rather, we must open the scales, outwards and inwards. Digging thousands of years back for what the ancients of ancients had found as the bases of humanity’s balance, through the preservation of ancestral knowledge by marginal lineages, as in Daniélou’s understanding of Shaivism in India. But digging also inwards, intensifying the exercise of attentive presence, shutting all sounds to hear the heartbeat of silence, rhythm of the divine, ripples of the music of life: the internal manifestation of the cycle.
The cycle is not a denial of progression and change. Daniélou does not miss the important nuance: “The circle is an illusion, for the cosmic mechanism is in reality always formed of spirals. Nothing ever turns to its point of departure.” 6 Thus the cycle subsumes the line, but it can just as well take a linear avatar, if needed for understanding, for the creation of meaning and thus for the empowerment of action. The programme of the short-sighted “European line” of democracy’s time, for instance, with its naive end point, is behind us already, but the larger scale of the future draws itself still, through and beyond the predictability of the upcoming cycles.
Daniélou calculates the end of the present Kali Yuga for 2442 C.E. For provocation’s sake if nothing else, once again, it may be worth considering this prediction, and what that may imply for the ethico-political challenges of our times. When we expect the escalation to extremes to go on for four more centuries, it is not the umpteenth “alliance against terror” that should preoccupy our thought and imagination, but rather all the episodes of creativity and destruction that will undeniably mark our world in the span of time that may separate us from our actual end. And, what role we may play in this large, cosmic drama, even if partially rigged. This was probably the scope Daniélou had in mind, thirty years ago, as he wrote yet another appeal… concluded with a surprising request, final cerise sur le gateau after a copious meal of surprises:
The history of the three cities represents the end, with the aid of extremely powerful weapons, of a highly technologically advanced civilization. Is it the recollection of a distant past or a premonition of the future? Perhaps both… The present times give us a disturbing image of this. It is a strange pride that motivates man to try to replace the divine order, the natural order, with a human order, which opposes so-called moral virtues to the magic of rites and sacrifices, and disregards the power obtainable through the practice of Yoga. 7
From rites to Yoga: a last touch for our Réveillons, food for thought, tasteful meditation on the channels of the rasa, circumvolution of thought like a cycle around the curves of an ॐ-like chakrasana… ? Daniélou leaves us once again in suspense, guessing, comfortable in the ellipsis: …
Image courtesy: Kooper Tasmania
Originally published (with minor edits) on the
Cahiers de la Fondation FIND : Indialogues N°8 – Winter Season 2015