Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Heinrich Zimmer on linear and cyclic time

This following is a chapter form "Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization" by Heinrich Zimmer.    This rendering by Zimmer of a story from the Brahmavaitarta Purana may be read before reading this chapter.

The Wisdom of Life
It is easy for us to forget that our strictly linear, evolutionary idea of time (apparently substantiated by geology, paleontology, and the history of civilization) is some peculiar to modern man.   Even the Greeks of the day of Plato and Aristotle, who were much nearer than the Hindus to our ways of thought and feeling and to our actual tradition, did not share it.   Indeed, Saint Augustine seems to have been the first to conceive of this modern idea of time.  His conception established itself only gradually in opposition to the notion formerly current.
The Augustinian Society has published a paper by Erich Frank, {E. Frank, Saint Augustine and Greek Thought, The Augustinian Society, Cambridge, Mass., 1942, see pp. 9-10} in which it is pointed out that both Aristotle and Plato believed that every art and science had many times developed to its apogee and then perished.   "These philosophers," writes Frank, "believed that even their own ideas were only the rediscovery of thoughts which had been known to the philosophers of previous periods."  This belief corresponds precisely to the Indian tradition of a perennial philosophy, an ageless wisdom revealed and re-revealed, restored, lost and again restored through the cycles of the ages.  
"Human life," Frank declares, "to Augustine was not merely a process of nature.  It was a unique, unrepeatable phenomenon;  it had an individual history in which everything that happened was new and had never been before.   Such a conception of history was unknown to the Greek philosophers.  The Greeks had great historians who investigated and described the history of their times; but … the history of the universe they considered as a natural process in which everything recurred in periodical cycles, so that nothing really new ever happened."
This is precisely the idea of time underlying Hindu mythology and life.  The history of the universe in its periodic passage from evolution to dissolution is conceived as a biological process of gradual and relentless deterioration, disintegration, and decay.   Only after everything has run its course into total annihilation and then been re-incubated in the boundlessness of the timeless cosmic night, does the universe reappear in perfection, pristine, beautiful, and reborn.   Whereupon, immediately, with the first tick of time, the irreversible process begins anew.   The perfection of life, the human capacity to apprehend and assimilate ideals of highest saintliness and selfless purity—in other words the divine quality or energy of Dharma—is in a continuous decline.  And during the process the strangest histories take place; yet nothing that has not, in the endless wheelings of the eons, happened many, many times before.

This vast time-consciousness, transcending the brief span of the individual, even the racial biography, is the time-consciousness of Nature herself.  Nature knows, not centuries, but ages—geological, astronomical ages—and stands, furthermore, beyond them.  Swarming egos are her children, but the species is her concern; and world ages are her shortest span for the various species that she puts forth and permits, finally, to die (like the dinosaurs, the mammoths, and the giant birds).  India—as Life brooding on itself—thinks of the problem of time in periods comparable to those of our astronomy, geology, and paleontology.  India thinks of time and of herself, that is to say, in biological terms, terms of the species, not of the ephemeral ego.   The latter becomes old; the former is old, and therewith eternally young.

We of the West on the other hand, regard world history as a biography of mankind, and in particular of Occidental Man, whom we estimate to be the most consequential member of the family.   Biography is that form of seeing and representing which concentrates on the unique, the induplicable, in any portion of existence, and then brings out the sense-and-direction-giving traits.  We think of egos, individuals, lives, not of Life.   Our will is not to culminate in our human institutions the universal play of nature, but to evaluate, to set ourselves against the play, with an egocentric tenacity.  As yet our physical and biological sciences—which, of course, are comparatively young—have not affected the general tenor of our traditional humanism.  So little, indeed, are we aware of their possible philosophical implications (aside from the idea of "progress" which we like to derive from their account of evolution) that when we encounter something of their kind in the mythological eons of the Hindus, we are left, emotionally, absolutely cold. We are unable, we are not prepared, to fill the monstrous yugas {world ages} with life significance.  Our conception of the long geological ages that preceded the human habitation of the planet and are promised to succeed it, and our astronomical figures for the description of outer space and the passages of the stars, may in some measure have prepared us to conceive of the mathematical reaches of the vision; but we can scarcely feel their pertinence to a practical philosophy of human life.

It was consequently a great experience for me, when, while reading one of the Puranas, I changed upon the brilliant, anonymous myth recounted at the opening of the present chapter.  Suddenly the empty sheaves of numbers were filled with the dynamism of life.   They became alive with philosophical value and symbolic significance.  So vivid was the statement, so powerful the impact, that the story did not have to be dissected for meaning.  The lesson was plain to see.

The two great gods, Vishnu and Shiva, instruct the human hearers of the myth by teaching, Indra, king of the Olympians.   The Wonderful Boy, solving riddles and pouring out wisdom from his childish lips, is an archetypal figure, common to the fairy tales of all ages and many traditions.   He is an aspect of the Hero, who solves the riddle of the Sphinx and rids the world of monsters.   Likewise an archetypal figure is the Old Wise Man, beyond ambitions and the illusions of ego, treasuring and imparting the wisdom that sets free, shattering the bondage of possessions, the bondage of suffering and desire.

But the wisdom taught in this myth would have been incomplete had the last word been that of the infinity of space and time.  The vision of the countless universes bubbling into existence side by side, and the lesson of the unending series of Indras and Brahmas, would have annihilated every value of individual existence.   Between this boundless, breath-taking vision and the opposite problem of the limited role of the short-lived individual, the myth effected the re-establishment of a balance.  Brihaspati, the high priest and spiritual guide of the gods, who is Hindu wisdom incarnate, teaches Indra (i.e., ourself, the individual confused) how to grant to each sphere its due.  We are taught to recognize the divine, the impersonal sphere of eternity, revolving ever and agelessly through time.  But we are also taught to esteem the transient sphere of the duties and pleasures of individual existence, which is as real and as vital to the living man, as a dream to the sleeping soul.