Saturday, January 03, 2015

The Kali yuga in context

As readers of Guénon well know, the concept of the kali yuga or dark age is central to his thought, and thus to Traditionalism as a whole. An excellent new article on the Hindu origins and European uses of the concept places its development in a wider context. The article is Luis González-Reimann, "The Yugas: Their Importance in India and their Use by Western Intellectuals and Esoteric and New Age Writers," Religion Compass 8 (2014), pp. 357–370.

González-Reimann argues that the concept of the kali yuga is a late one, emerging in India only around the first century AD, when it helped to explain the various disasters then afflicting the classical Vedic system. It became known in Europe during the seventeenth century, but did not attract much attention until the eighteenth century, when Voltaire was among those interested in it, and in the challenge that the system of the yugas presented to established Christian chronology. The intellectual mainstream soon lost interest, however, according to González-Reimann because of the impact of a refutation by Sir William Jones. In fact, I suspect, it was also because chronologies based on geology were then beginning to render all other varieties of chronology obsolete.

Even if the intellectual mainstream lost interest in the yugas, esotericists did not. The yugas featured in the work of Antoine Fabre d'Olivet (1767-1825), who suggested that the Hindus had got them the wrong way round and that the kali yuga was actually the best of the four yugas. They then appear in the work of Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre (1842–1909), who agreed with Fabre d'Olivet that the yugas were actually improving. Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner all wrote about the yugas, following Saint-Yves d'Alveydre's optimistic view. Besant emphasized the coming new age of the satya yuga, and Steiner even held that the kali yuga ended in 1899.

Saint-Yves d'Alveydre modified the standard Indian understanding of the yugas, equating the mahāyuga with the manvantara, two measures of time that classically belonged to different systems, and were far from identical. Guénon follows Saint-Yves d'Alveydre in this, which indicates his proximate source. Guénon differed from the esoteric norm, however, and most importantly, in  reverting to the original emphasis on the negative nature of the kali yuga itself. And the rest, as they say, is history. Once again, we see how Traditionalism owes much to mainstream esotericism, but also differs from it.

All this is shown clearly by González-Reimann in his article, which closes by observing that "in the second half of the 20th century, esotericism largely morphed into New Age thinking, or ... the New Age engulfed esotericism. Either way, such ideas [as the yugas] ... have been incorporated into the manifold spectrum of New Age thought." Yes, perhaps, so far as optimistic understandings from Fabre d'Olivet and Saint-Yves d'Alveydre to Besant and Steiner are concerned, but no so far as the Traditionalist understanding is concerned.


Anonymous said...

Supporting/Reference Articles (with more details) :-)

1] KALI YUGA: Age of Quarrel and Conflict!

2] The End of the Kali Yuga!

3] When Does the Kali Yuga End?

4] The end of the Kali Yuga in 2025: Unraveling the mysteries of the Yuga Cycle!

Anonymous said...

It's pretty fun to see that the clueless new agers transformed kali yuga into something good.
They really are counter-tradition as described by Guenon: they took the apocalypse and transformed it into the wonderful aquarian age.

Gregory said...

The ability of the 19th century esotericists to recognize the good within the kali yuga is a bit more nuanced than a feel-good, age of aquarius type of sentimental optimism. Steiner for example recognized the kali yuga as a teleogical necessity, a sort of alchemical dung heap from which the gold of an evolved future humankind would emerge. Such a catastrophic descent into material density affords the jiva the posibility of differentiating his or her individuality from the whole--something only possible to initiates in antiquity. The spiritualization of humanity thereby becomes increasingly self-conscious and self-willed as it takes heroic and intentional steps to climb out of such a level of uncounsious materiality and regain connection with the spiritual levels of existence. In previous ages such spiritual connection, says Steiner, was more instinctual and unconsciously organic. To become truly one with the Unity the kali yuga sets up such spiritual connection to become entirely self-conscious and self-willed for the collective and not just the initiates. Too bad all that esoteric morphing into new age ideas tends to drown out some of the original subtleties behind the ideas. Of course, Guenon had trouble seeing the good in any degree of scientific materialism and its philosophical ramifications but perhaps he forgot the verse "wherever you turn there is the face of Allah." Of course he would have never read Sri Aurobindo who reminds us that, "God's negations are as useful to us as His affirmations. It is He who as the Atheist denies His own existence for the better perfecting of human knowledge. It is not enough to see God in Christ & Ramakrishna & hear His words, we must see Him and hear Him also in Huxley & Haeckel."

Anonymous said...

Does the Biblical Shemitah Jubilee Signify the Beginning of the End of the KALI YUGA?