Sunandan Roy Chowdhury
Kali Yuga, Corona and Alain Daniélou
How will Corona impact the future of humans? The planet earth, the physical universe, will not end but chances are that the post-World War II lifestyle will. In this essay, Sunandan Chowdhury prods the reader to wonder whether Corona is modernity’s karma, a wake-up call to stem the unending expansion of industrialism, capitalism and consumerism; natural justice meted out for the viruses once exported unwittingly from Europe to the Americas 500 years ago, decimating seven hundred cultures. Drawing among others on the ideas of Alain Daniélou, this essay attempts to show that the ‘American Dream’ that so many people in the world take as a model has proved a nightmare to civilisation.
2020 will probably go down in human history as the year of the Corona virus. A microbe that is invisible to the naked human eye has brought man’s world to its knees. As I write this essay, India and a large number of countries across the globe are in total/partial lockdown. Economic activity, which is what capitalism lives by, has come to a halt in several places and in some it is being severely hit: in India and in most developing economies. I suspect that the pattern may be nearly the same as in developed Western economies, and it is always the poorest strata of society that are hit the hardest by economic disruption. However, the virus is attacking the health of rich and poor alike; it is not making any distinction on race, religion or on any other count. Britain’s royals and members of the Saudi royal family have also been infected by the virus. Many are asking, “Are we approaching the end of the world?”
The planet earth, the physical universe as we understand it, will not end because of the Corona virus. It is rather the post-Second-World-War lifestyle that large parts of the world have come to take for granted in the last seventy-five years that will probably come to an end. Fewer people will drive fewer cars and SUVs, airlines will drastically reduce their traffic, luxury five-to-seven-star hotels will have less occupancy, the frequency of rave parties will go down, the price of oil on the global market will sink – it has already nearly touched the bottom. Man’s coveted and self-flaunted lifestyle will be the victim of the next phases of the Corona crisis. But the planet will breathe better: less CO2 emission, the snowcaps continually melting over the past twenty years or more will melt less, the rivers that look black, yellow or red today owing to industrial effluents will turn blue, the green landscape cover that humans are continually axing, will grow again.
Karma of Capitalism, Colonialism and Globalisation
The concept of Karma, enunciated in the Bhagavad Gītā (II, 11-53), has gained popular currency globally today. There are several strands within the rubric of Karma. One is that, as humans, we should understand that we have the right to act but not to the fruits of our action. In other words, I as an individual should be happy with my life as long as I can put my labour to use and I should not be concerned with what the fruit of that labour brings me. This philosophical premise can limit man’s greed. We humans often work with a goal, a result in mind. I am writing this essay with the hope that it will be published. However, the Gītā tells us that I should not have that attachment as the goal of my action. I should write the essay only for the joy, the involvement, the engagement of doing it. This philosophical premise not only limits greed but also brings peace and happiness. The goal-oriented economic and social reality is precisely what is questioned by the Gītā, which puts forward a different way of living and being in the world.
But that is not the most popular currency that the term ‘karma’ has generated. In popular global lore, it is believed that the kind of work you do, and more specifically its intrinsic moral value (good or bad) , will determine the nature of the results. In other words, if you do a good deed, you will obtain auspicious results, and if you do evil things, then ill omen will befall you. A belief like this is prevalent in vast swathes of Hindu society and has been probably going on for centuries. One may even say, that such a pattern of belief is prominent among almost all inhabitants of Hindustan, whatever religion they belong to. It is this meaning of Karma that has gained global currency. Often one hears friends say, ‘this is my karma’. I suspect that many people in the globalised world of today, when they reflect on the general situation in this time of Corona crisis, are probably thinking: ‘This is our collective karma. Our materialist greed nurtured by capitalism has brought this deadly virus upon us’.
A huge factor that contributed to the death of the native peoples of the Americas was certainly the new diseases that Europeans brought to the continent, apart from the disease of conquering land for the sake of material power, as if it were a gold trophy.
I often feel that despite the good deeds a human does, she or he is not rewarded for it in the course of her/his lifetime. It is rather his/her daughter or son that reaps the reward for the virtues of the previous generation. The karma cycle extends beyond one’s mortal end. This thought has lately led me to recall an event in my life that goes back to the summer of 2006. I had gone to Washington DC to participate in a symposium on Islam and Tolerance in Europe. After the symposium, a friend kindly offered to show me some important sights of the city. On a fine morning, we went down to the Washington Mall, where all the Smithsonian museums are located. My friend asked me which museum I would like to visit. I chose the most recent addition to the cluster of museums, the one called ‘Museum of the Americas’. Created by an initiative of two US native-American parliamentarians, this museum is a repository of the culture of the native peoples of North, Central and South America before the advent of Europeans five hundred years ago. My friend and I entered the museum and were assigned a guide, a man from Peru who wore his hair in a beautifully plaited braid and had a peaceful expression on his face. As we were walking around the museum and admiring the works of native-American peoples, our guide recounted in a soft voice quite a startling fact: before the Europeans arrived, from Alaska in the north to the southernmost tip of Argentina, there were seven hundred different indigenous cultures. In his place, I would talk (as a Bengali) about a Muslim culture and a Hindu culture in Bengal. I know only two cultures in my homeland. Contemporary Europe may ascribe to itself between eighty and one hundred cultures. In that scheme of things, seven Europes existed on that landmass before the arrival of present-day Europe. Our guide went further and said: ‘Now nearly nothing is left of those seven hundred cultures’. The decimation of those many hundreds of cultures was effected not only by means of colonial war. A huge factor that contributed to the death of the native peoples of the Americas was certainly the new diseases that Europeans brought to the continent, apart from the disease of conquering land for the sake of material power, as if it were a gold trophy. One Europe reduced seven Europes. Such a great conquest has rarely happened in human history. That war, in which the microbes of Europe, among them viruses, fought at the side of the invading Europeans, a war fought and won five centuries ago that has permanently re-shaped the world map of civilisations, has met its reversal in the virus that now strikes the world in 2020 and haunts the descendants of the Europeans who won five hundred years ago. In that sense, there is a structure mindful of a karmic cycle in this story.
At this time of Corona world-crisis, I have turned to Alain Daniélou. Daniélou was a thinker who deeply opposed imperialism: the empires of Christianity, of Islam, of Marxism, or of industrialism. Daniélou was also a Western thinker who knew India very well, especially the India that emanates from the polyphony of Sanskrit texts written some four to two thousand years ago.
There is an understanding of the world that Daniélou discusses, his resources deriving from the thought world of classical Sanskrit texts. In Virtue, Success, Pleasure, Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India, he writes:
“The cycles of day and night, of the seasons, of growth and decline, of life and death are those which are most apparent to us, but life itself – the development of species, races, civilizations – also present the same cyclic character, of which the broadest aspect for us is the cycle of four yugas, or four ages of humanity. …
…Within this general cycle, other shorter cycles develop, which see the rise and fall of civilizations as their peoples progress and decline with ineluctable regularity.
For mankind as a whole we are now in the Fourth Age, the Age of Decline, which the Hindus call the Age of Conflicts (Kali Yuga). This age will head increasingly toward the disruption of all values and will end in a catastrophe which will destroy mankind. …For five thousand years, we have been living in the Age of Conflicts that began at the time of the Mahabharata war, which saw the autochthones fight the Aryan invaders. The end of mankind therefore appears to be relatively near.
The mankind we know, however, is not the first. Humanity has already appeared six times on the earth, developed, and reached the highest levels of technical and scientific progress, only to be destroyed in a general calamity. After us, mankind will rise and fall seven times more before the earth itself becomes an uninhabitable desert.
As we advance through the Age of Conflicts, our virtues deteriorate and are replaced with irresponsibility, corruption, and egoism. The sciences, originally the preserve of those who knew how to use them wisely, are given over to men who have not the discernment necessary to avoid their misuse. …
The interior and spiritual life becomes separated from knowledge, while religion becomes blind belief and an instrument of persecution. All the religions born during the Age of Conflicts have the same social revolutionary character, and their often aberrant dogmas serve as an instrument for the dominion of the temporal power. Only mystics, by isolating themselves from the world, know by intuition how to reestablish contact with eternal realities, but they are usually ignored or persecuted” 1.
Elsewhere he has written, “Kali Yuga, in which we are now living, is marked by standardization, the prelude to death, and by the will to destroy an infinite variety of vegetable, animal, or human species that characterize the beauty of the divine work” 2.
Now that the Corona crisis has raised its head, one reads Daniélou in a completely different way: his words, drawn out of the ancient wisdom of India’s Sanskritic reservoir, can be taken as a sombre reminder of the limits of man’s civilisation and the type of ego born out of civilising success.
If one had read these words of Daniélou a year ago, one would have most likely glossed over the text and thought: ‘Yes, it is a view of the world among others’, without giving it much thought. But now that the Corona crisis has raised its head, one reads Daniélou in a completely different way: his words, drawn out of the ancient wisdom of India’s Sanskritic reservoir, can be taken as a sombre reminder of the limits of man’s civilisation and the type of ego born out of civilising success. In the last quote above, he talks of the destruction of an ‘infinite variety of vegetable, animal or human species’. My Peruvian guide has already noted the pain of losing seven hundred human cultures from Alaska to Argentina. Scientists are constantly reminding us that thousands if not hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species have disappeared from the planet in the last fifty years. A recent study has shown that in India, between 2011 and 2019 the amount of land cleared of forest is six times the size of greater Calcutta. In other words: every one-and-a-half years, a forest the size of greater Calcutta is being devoured by the greed of global Indian industrialism. In this age of ours, Christian-ism or Islam-ism or Marxism are lesser isms, the greater being industrialism, consumerism and ego-centrism.
When Daniélou discusses the features of the Age of Conflicts (kali yuga), he says that we will “head increasingly toward the disruption of all values” and “our virtues deteriorate and are replaced with irresponsibility, corruption, and egoism”.3 Doesn’t that seem all too familiar in the times we live in? He also makes an important point about science and political power: “The sciences, originally the preserve of those who knew how to use them wisely, are given over to men who have not the discernment necessary to avoid their misuse” 4. Doesn’t that seem to fit the ever-increasing arms industry, military spending skyrocketing in a large number of nations and a super-power waging a war almost every minute in the post-1945 world of global peace and prosperity?
Equally powerful is what Daniélou writes drawing upon Sanskritic sources: “the interior and spiritual life becomes separated from knowledge, while religion becomes blind belief and an instrument of persecution” 5. For the India of today, as also for many other societies with varying sets of dominant religion, nothing could be truer. Religion has become a blind belief and an instrument of persecution. Relying on the repository of Indian classical texts, Daniélou adds that mystics could reach realities outside our notion of space and time and learn from them. While the contemporary world seems to be in need of such mystics, the market is wide open for fake or self-styled mystics, especially those generating massive financial profits. The kind of mystic Daniélou talks about is by definition excluded from the public space.
The Kali Yuga might have been all around us for centuries, but it is only when Corona overtakes our speeding car of industrialism and modern civilisation that we pause to reflect on our past deeds. The karma of those European ancestors who discovered the New World and wiped out seven hundred cultures comes back to haunt us. Daniélou, with his deep understanding of ancient Indian knowledge, offers us a template to take stock of this Age of Conflicts, the Kali Yuga that we live in.
Age of Conflicts, Age of Empire
In his book The Age of the Empire, the famous British Marxist historian E.J.Hobsbawm refers to the time starting in the late eighteenth century, spanning the entire nineteenth century and ending in the first half of the twentieth century, as a time when European empires (British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and others) covered nearly eighty percent of the globe. This notion of empire was not only physical, geographic and economic. It was fundamentally an empire of the mind, an empire of ideas. European-rooted Western civilisation conceived a world-view and convinced other societies and cultures around the world that ‘progress’ lay in the way/s that Europe devised for itself and for the entire world. Even now, most non-European societies and cultures in the world are governed by adhering to this idea of ‘progress’ enshrined within modern Europe and consequently extended to the present global super-power: the United States.
Daniélou questioned this idea of ‘progress’. In his book India: A Civilisation of Differences, he writes:
“All conquests and colonialism, all religious, ideological, linguistic, and cultural (i.e. ethical) propaganda are fundamentally destructive, as is the unilateral notion of progress. The missionary fanaticism of Christians, Muslims, and Marxists has always been and still is a tool of the over-powerful to depersonalize and subject both peoples and individuals. With rare exceptions, we are witnessing the gradual disappearance, beneath the steamroller of so-called Western egalitarianism, of the plastic arts, dance, music, traditional sciences, and even the languages of Africa and other continents.
Up to the middle of the twentieth century, the superiority of the white race, its civilization and religion, was considered as an indisputable fact in Europe. It needed the excesses of Nazism to challenge this assumption.
… What is termed antiracism today as a rule implies reducing the human species to the Western way of life, which Westerners deem to be the best and most developed. The antiracist ideal is to clothe the Congolese, Chinese, or Indians in a suit, as can be seen at international meetings. Otherwise they find no audience, have no right to respect, are considered to be primitive, the subject of amused interest. An African is ‘civilized’ if he wears a Cardin suit and speaks ‘excellent French or English’. You never encounter antiracists who speak excellent Swahili or Bengali and wear a boubou or a dhoti, except as a carnival disguise. A female Breton member of parliament who wears her headdress in the Chamber will be treated as a native country girl. Soviet egalitarianism speaks Russian”6.
The mono-culturation that Daniélou discusses, the process of universal Westernisation that has characterised most of the last three centuries or even more, should not be considered separate from the human tendency to ravage the natural world. Both the natural world and the social world are reshaped by European/Western industrial modernity. Here it is important to note that Daniélou’s descriptions of both Western capitalism and Soviet communism share important features. I would ascribe the common denominator to the larger rubric of ‘industrialism’. Both American capitalism and Soviet communism can be located within the wider sphere of industrialism as a world-phenomenon. Daniélou also points to the homogenisation of human experience in the corporate Western business suit. In this sense, capitalism and communism do not differ greatly.
In a short essay entitled Monster Anglopolis: The English Language in India, first published in 2014 in Planet The Welsh Internationalist and later included in an essay-collection of mine7, I discussed – as Daniélou also mentions the crushing power of English or French – how the use and abuse of the power of the English language by a small minority of Indians turns large numbers of Indians into pygmies and that minority ‘power’ class of Indians ‘empowered’ by English continue as pygmies at the cultural altar of their Western masters. The incessant process of mono-culturation goes on and has been going on since Europeans fanned out across the rest of the world some five hundred years ago. Colonial expansion, development of nation states, growth of industrial economies and global corporations, global languages including political languages such as democracy and communism: these have all contributed to this global Western order.
And this monochrome covers not only the human space, but also includes a devastation of nature, whereby biodiversity is the greatest casualty. It is evident that industrial modernity, which characterizes the Western/European project, levels the human universe and devastates the natural world. That is the price paid for what has been called in the second half of the twentieth century ‘the American dream’. As the Corona crisis unfolds, as more and more storms and hurricanes rage through human habitats, as the polar icecap melts, as forests recede and desertification takes over large swathes of the planet, humans will scramble for resources to buy water, air and ultimately… life.
By way of conclusion
The fact that seven hundred cultures on the American continent were erased is a catastrophe. The sombre look on my Peruvian guide’s face may hide the remnants of pain that his forgotten ancestors suffered at the hands of colonial Europe. Those seven hundred cultures cannot hit back, but the same is not true of Nature and Planet Earth. The natural world has its ways of hitting back; it is doing that today and may do it with even more vengeance tomorrow.
Such a spectre should make us turn to the thought of Daniélou and other thinkers who questioned and criticised the cultural supremacy of the Western monologue. Danielou’s voice remains an exceptional Western voice pitched against a five-hundred-year-long aggression of European modernity aimed at the rest of the human species and Planet Earth. With Corona today or with another wave of natural destruction tomorrow, the human race may be annihilated. If we could only awake from the slumber of our ‘American dream’ and realise that it may well be the longest nightmare of human civilisation! Delving deep into Daniélou’s thought and the heritage he based his wisdom upon, we may be able to reconsider our choices, in the assurance that the ‘American dream’ is civilisation’s nightmare.
- Alain Daniélou: Virtue, Success, Plesure, Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India, Rochester: Inner Traditions International, 1993. pp 20-21.
- Unpublished statement of Alain Daniélou found by Jacques Cloarec in 1998, cf. Alain Daniélou: India. A Civilization of Differences. The Ancient Tradition of Universal Tolerance (Foreword), Rochester: Vermont, Inner Traditions, 2005, p. xiv.
- Alain Danielou: Virtue, Success, Pleasure, Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India, p. 21.
- Alain Daniélou: Ibidem.
- Alain Daniélou: Ibidem.
- Alain Daniélou: India. A Civilization of Differences, pp. 39 and 35.
- Sunandan Roy Chowdhury: West and East in Rabindranath Tagore and Other Essays, Calcutta, Sampark, 2000