Wednesday, June 1, 2011
OUR HIGHEST GOAL: TO MAINTAIN OUR DHARMA AT ALL COSTS
“The main difficulty during the Kali Yuga is to maintain dharma, to maintain the order of the world and the integrity of our own actions, which are intimately connected in Indian thought, because we are in part responsible for the smooth running of the universe. If each of us observes his own personal dharma, if each of us accomplishes what he came into existence for the purpose of accomplishing, the universe will proceed along its course, and one day the world will be reborn. It's all a question, therefore, of knowing how – despite this prospect of inevitable destruction – to continue to strive for dharma… There's only one thing left for us to do in these dramatic times: maintain our dharmas in circumstances which will make it harder and harder for us to do so… Which is why we must at all costs maintain our dharma, in order to help Vishnu not to forget. To help the god to dream. If all values, all beauty are destroyed at the end of the cycle, the world is in danger of never reappearing. If something of the equilibrium between the forces of destruction and the forces of conservation is preserved in the memory of the great 'maintainer' that we are, Vishnu and us together, then all hope is not lost. A new cycle will begin again...”
“THE TIME OF KALI”
from interview with Jean-Claude Carriere, “Answering the Sphinx”, in Conversations about the End of Time (with Umberto Eco, Stephen Jay Gould, and Jean Delumeau), 1998
You mention Sanskrit, so perhaps we might think about the Hindu concept of time. According to them, we've come to the end of a cycle, haven't we?
Hindus believe we are now living in what they call the Kali Yuga, the age of destruction. It's an irremediable process. Shiva has, once more, prevailed...Which is no surprise: Shiva always prevails. At the end of the last of the yugas, which form a cycle, everything disappears. The world we know will disappear, but not for the first time. There is no use trying to resist this destruction, because the forces sweeping us away are infinitely more powerful than us. The main difficulty during the Kali Yuga is to maintain dharma, to maintain the order of the world and the integrity of our own actions, which are intimately connected in Indian thought, because we are in part responsible for the smooth running of the universe. If each of us observes his own personal dharma, if each of us accomplishes what he came into existence for the purpose of accomplishing, the universe will proceed along its course, and one day the world will be reborn. It's all a question, therefore, of knowing how – despite this prospect of inevitable destruction – to continue to strive for dharma.
When did we enter the time of Kali?
About 3200 B.C., on the death of Krishna, the eighth avatar of the god Vishnu. But how long will the time of Kali last? I've never managed to find out, though I must have asked at least fifty people.
The French comic Fernand Raynaud would have said: “For some time...”
If the time of Kali began around 3200 B.C., it's already lasted more than 5,000 years. How much longer? Some talk of fifty years, others of 3 million. It is very difficult to know how long a yuga lasts. Probably because, for Indians, that's not exactly the point.
It's the very idea of measuring time which is foreign to them.
Yes, because you can't measure a circular phenomenon.
What's going to happen at the end of the Kali Yuga?
We shall see – are already seeing – an increasingly radical and increasingly evident decline in the whole idea of civilization. One can find very precise accounts of the Kali Yuga in the sacred texts of India, in the Mahabharata, for example. We shall experience a period in which all social ties disappear. The laws will be called into question, opposed, and finally dispensed with. The texts speak of the 'laws of Manu', named after the Indian equivalent of Solon. These laws have provided the structure of Indian society for a very long time. When they cease to be in force, civil wars will follow, within states, within cities, within families, rifts of every kind. Wild animals will invade the cities. The texts are very precise on the matter. I remember Jean-Luc Godard saying fifteen years ago that the fact that the blackbirds had deserted the countryside to come and live in the towns and cities seemed to him one of the most important events of the last years of the century; within a short period of time the least tame of animals had become almost domesticated...One reads, too, in the Mahabharata: 'Crime walks abroad. Carnivorous animals lie sleeping in the streets...The vultures are gathering. Birds with iron beaks have been seen, crying: “It's ripe! It's ripe!” And so on. Predictions of the end of the world share a number of common signs pretty well everywhere.
Aren't these just metaphors?
Absolutely not. It is presented quite clearly as fact. The texts speak also of the human race degenerating: of people becoming shorter, of muscles weakening, of the hair of fifteen-year-olds turning white...
If we look around us, the opposite seems to be true. The new generation is taller, healthier than any previous generation.
The Indians argue that ones does indeed see many people living to the age of eighty or ninety. But they belong to a generation born before the Second World War, when more than half the population still lived in the country and ate natural foods, produce that grew from the earth without the aid of pesticides and chemicals, and when they breathed clean air.
Will the post-war generation face problems that we don't yet know about?
It's quite possible. More often than not, what happens in the future is unexpected. But if everything is going from bad to worse, according to the traditional Indian view, one thing is nevertheless getting better and better: the quality of wine is improving, throughout the world. An exception to the rule which is not without its charm! There is absolutely no doubt that wine today – in the Herault, for example, where I live – is better than it was thirty or forty years ago. And that's encouraging. But will wine survive the Kali Yuga?
Perhaps it's your taste buds which have deteriorated?
Absolutely not. Everybody agrees on the fact, the wind-growers especially. Consumption of plonk has fallen considerably, people are discovering quality wines all over the place. Individual wines, with their own personality, that refuse to be like the rest. The wine-growers have devoted considerable efforts to the choice of grape varieties. And to mention something I do know quite a lot about, Corbieres wines are in the process of becoming very fine wines, on a par with the wines of Bordeaux. And even Bordeaux wine is getting better. So there's one good reason not to despair completely. There's some serious resistance going on...
But according to your sacred texts, none the less, the human race is under threat.
I remember talking to an Indian in 1985, in Avignon, on the banks of the Rhine. We'd both been giving talks on the Mahabharata. It was rather an amusing situation. France had just offered to send a group of scientists to India to help combat the pollution of the Ganges, and there we were, sitting on the banks of the Rhone, when we saw several shoals of dead fish floating past. Then, thinking of this country that was proposing to come to the rescue of the Indians while neglecting to protect the species to be found in its own territory, the Indian calmy and simply said to me: “Watch out!” Throughout history, average life expectancy has varied. Historians contend that people in the West lived longer in Ancient Greece and Rome than they did in the fifteenth century. Great epidemics of the sort that decimated populations in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were unknown throughout Antiquity. Since the introduction of chemicals on a grand scale into our agriculture from the 1960's on – into our air, our water, our soil - no one has been able to predict the long-term effects on the human species as a whole. It's equally possible, of course, that it will have no effect. I'm not trying to act the prophet of doom. I'm simply trying to caution against any unduly complacent assertions about the 'progress' made by our civilization.
And how does the Kali Yuga end?
The abandonment of the rule of the law, followed by civil wars and the degeneration of the species, lead to wretched deprivation, everywhere. And there are disasters on a global scale, great rains, red vapours, yellow vapours, deadly clouds, which will all turn the earth into one enormous swamp.
Richard Fleicher's film Green Sun [Soylent Green] seemed to be predicting a miserable end of that sort.
Yes, it was a moving account. The age of Kali is terrifying. And there is no remedy. It's pointless to resist. There's only one thing left for us to do in these dramatic times: maintain our dharmas in circumstances which will make it harder and harder for us to do so.
But why maintain this dharma if the cause is definitively lost?
Precisely because time is cyclical, and a certain number of values, of the elements that constitute the order of the world, cannot disappear for ever. When all that's left on our planet is a sort of grey mud, as the texts describe it, then at that moment Vishnu will admit defeat: Shiva will have triumphed, the world will have been destroyed. There are two great divinities in India, Vishnu and Shiva, and one creative principle, Brahma, of whom it is said that he is the third divinity. In reality, Brahma intervenes very little. There are only one or two temples in India that are dedicated to him. Vishnu and Shiva, on the other hand, are constant rivals: one preserves the world and the other seeks to destroy it. The Mahabharata is a great Vishnuist poem in honour of Krishna, who is an avatar of Vishnu. In difficult times Vishnu comes down to fight Shiva and to delay the end by a few years. Indian statuary often depicts Shiva with four hands. The top two are at the same height; in the right hand, the god holds a small drum to signify that the world was created to the sound and rhythm of a drum. In the other he holds a flame, which reminds us that everything that has been created shall be destroyed. The gesture that Shiva makes with his third arm is also the gesture that the Buddha makes, the famous abhaya, meaning “Be not afraid.” Fear is an illusion, it does not exist. Since everything that has been created must be destroyed, why be alarmed, why worry? The fourth hand is a finger pointing towards the god's feet. Shiva is standing on one leg and crushing a demon with his whole weight. He seems to be telling us: “Be not afraid, for look! By the power of my thought, I have lifted one foot off the ground.” This is one of the most emblematic and meaningful figures in the whole Hindu pantheon, which has no shortage of them. Shiva has prevailed, but all hope is not lost. He demonstrates the fact himself. From his raised foot our eye travels back to the original drum: one day everything will begin again. We all have our own little Kali Yuga in us, our own sense of apocalyptic doom. There's even something strangely inviting about this sense that the end is nigh. If so many periods in history have experienced it, that's probably because the feeling is part of us, deep down, and surfaces on this or that occasion as evidence of our fear, of our sense of guilt. In India, too, they are familiar with this human sense of being haunted by an ending. They simply respond to it in their own way.
And what does Vishnu do during this time?
Vishnu sleeps. He sleeps for a very long time upon a limitless ocean. There are thousands of depictions of Vishnu sleeping. While asleep he must dream so as not to forget the beauties of the world that has disappeared. Which is why we must at all costs maintain our dharma, in order to help Vishnu not to forget. To help the god to dream. If all values, all beauty are destroyed at the end of the cycle, the world is in danger of never reappearing. If something of the equilibrium between the forces of destruction and the forces of conservation is preserved in the memory of the great 'maintainer' that we are, Vishnu and us together, then all hope is not lost. A new cycle will begin again...
So dream has a function as memory.
As non-oblivion, as the struggle against oblivion. Dream remains awake within the sleeping mind. Who decides when the world will be created? No one says. There is no text, I think, which talks about it. Indian thought is reluctant to give shape or words to what is not yet shape, to what belongs to the realm of the shapeless. Tat tvam asi, they say of the ultimate reality: 'You are that.'
That's the essential message of the Bhagavad Gita.
The Bhagavad Gita is a very dense text which cannot be reduced to an 'essential message.' We must stop thinking that we can summarize in a few sentences the great thoughts, the great texts, that come from outside our own tradition. In a sense, the Bhagavad Gita subsumes everything that went before and develops it in certain aspects. It's a complex text. People have even found Buddhist influences in it. I shall certainly not simplify it for you. I wouldn't be able to.
As far as the dharma of the Hindus is concerned (the word has a different sense in Buddhism), no one knows hot it came to exist in the first place. It's simply a fact. That's how things are. There have been many people – Jorge Luis Borges, for example – who have been surprised at this obligation without explanation.
As I said, it's almost impossible to assimilate Indian thought (or Chinese or Mayan thought) to our Western concepts. We are far from having a monopoly on ways of thinking. There's a certain intellectual racism to be found more or less everywhere in the West, and we should constantly be on our guard against it.
So it is with time. Indian time cannot be reduced to our own. It defies all human arithmetic. Taken to its limit, this way of thinking means that a civilization could disappear in a few seconds and then reappear. In a few seconds, in a few thousand million years; what's the difference in the eyes of an extinct cosmos? Brahma the creator acts in an instant. Shiva takes longer, being more tortuous about his destruction. But it all comes to the same. An age is an age. Often if all depends on us, on our feel for things, on our way of seeing, our attitude.
For a thinker like Rene Guenon, manifestations belong to different orders, some of which take place in time and other of which take place in other dimensions. Yes, perhaps in those parallel universes that the scientists tell us about these days. But let me finish talking about...what am I saying! One's never finished with him, with Vishnu, our official protector.
After a certain 'time', all at once and for reasons we don't understand, Brahma, the creative principle, suddenly emerges from the belly of Vishnu, seated on a lotus leaf, and recreates the world he was dreaming about. The job done, Brahma returns to sleep inside the stomach of the god, ready for the next occasion. Creation dwells in sleep.