Found in Sanga, Sanga 2001.

Dear Swami,

Hindu cosmology appears cyclical: from Satya-yuga, the pinnacle of human achievement, to Kali-yuga, the fall of humanity into total degradation. According to this view, what place does “progress” have? Can there be progress today in science, art, music, etc.? Are we doomed to gradual erosion and the eventual collapse of civilization as envisioned in the Bhagavatam?

Mdas

Mdas,

As I understand it, your question implies that nature’s process could be linear rather than cyclical, that we could be moving in the direction of infinite progress, and that this notion seems reasonable and confirmed by our experience. However, if the movement of nature is linear, it must be either one of infinite aggregation or disintegration. Neither of these two alternatives reasonably describe our present point in time.

The cyclical sense of cosmic order experienced by the rishis is more appealing to our faculty of reason than a rectilinear concept. Their experience is that they themselves remain constant while all else constantly changes around them. The passage from day to night and back again is witnessed by the self, who, while giving life to this cycle, is apart from it. The position of the individual soul in relation to his daily experience is similar to that of the supreme soul in relation to the cosmic order. God activates the world order and it thus revolves around him.

Only that which constitutes material nature, the psychic and physical dimensions of reality, are involved in this cycle. Nature’s movement involves cycles within cycles. Brahma’s day and night, for example, is a smaller circle within the larger circle of Visnu’s breath, while the yuga cycles are smaller circles within the circle of Brhama’s days and nights. Our days and nights are smaller circles still. All of this circular motion need not make your head spin. Indeed, it is much more conceivable than a linear conception of nature’s movement.

Aristotle also felt more comfortable with circular movement. He believed it was the most perfect form of motion. A circle has a pattern and exhibits rythm and order, whereas a line has none of these characteristics. While a line may be accidental or random, a circle always displays rationality and purpose. If the process of nature is to be defined, it must have a pattern. A series of changes that has no no beginning or end and no purpose, is patternless. Any particular point in a line either stands by itself or in relation to its entire past. If it stands by itself, it cannot be defined, owing to its being unrelated. If it stands in relation to its entire past, it also cannot be defined because its entire past is unknowable, having, as it does, no beginning.

If however the process of nature is cyclical, every point in the circle is part of a coherent system and thus rationally understandable.The problem of infinite regress, that a linear conception suffers from, need not trouble us when conceiving the world order as cyclical, even though the cycle of each creation is but one among many occurring since time immemorial (anadi). This is so because each cycle is complete in itself, and conceiving of one and understanding it is not dependent upon knowledge of that which has come before it. While time itself may be beginningless, the cycles of nature themselves are not.

The cycles of nature are its cosmic habit. They represent the cosmic aspect of karma. In relation to the cosmic order, the law of karma is the pattern that nature has acquired as a result of its repeated action. The appearance of kali yuga in the cosmic behavior of nature generally corresponds with an aggregate of moral degradation generated by individual souls that comes to play itself out. Are we thus doomed, and if so, how can we account for any apparent progress in the realm of morality, science, art, etc.?

Surely there are those who could argue well that we are not experiencing progress at all. Without debating that here, there is another important point to consider. Although nature has a behavioral pattern, this pattern is subject to alteration through divine will, as much as our daily habits while seemingly fixed are also subject to alteration by our own conscious intervention. Thus kali yuga need not be a time of degradation. Indeed this is what the Bhagavatam says about the present kali yuga more than anything else: It is a time for progress due to the advent of Sri Caitanya. This is the perception of the gods.

kalim sabhajayanty arya
guna-jnah sara-bhaginah
yatra sankirtanenaiva
sarva-svartho ‘bhilabhyate

“Those who are progressive and thus know the the true value of Kali-yuga worship it because it is a time during which all desired objectives can be achieved simply by engaging in sankirtana.”

The literal meaning of sankirtana is ‘collective proclamation.’ It could be said that taking to the streets in mass, chanting slogans, etc. has done more in a relative sense to change the world for the better in recent times than anything else.

Rdgs,

Swami B. V. Tripurari

Pranams Swami,

Thank you for your reply. You have given much food for thought.

I do have to take issue with you when you say that, “To the contrary, it appears from our experience at this point in history that human beings, since our appearance on the Earth some 6 or 7 million years ago, have made steady and consistent progress in our ability to use tools, communicate through the use of language, cultivate land to grow food, organize our societies into communities with governments and laws, understand the causes and cures of certain diseases, and most of all”

On top of that, we have, in fairly recent times, made significant progress in terms of human rights and basic human freedoms that are unparalleled in human history. I don’t see any reason to think that this type of progress, necessarily must end, although it may. To an unprejudiced and candid observer it seems that the movement of nature at least has the potential of being linear, or, as you put it “of infinite aggregation”, if by that you mean progressively building on what came before it. I can envisage a world that is free from exploitation of others, free of war and violence, tolerant of diverse religious, cultural, ethnic, and political plurality, increasingly spiritual, etc., etc.

Since the yugas, as described in the Vedas, are extremely long they are beyond any of our direct experience. We therefore have to accept them in faith as they are described in the scriptures and experienced by the rishis, as you have said. However, we are not asked to accept that description blindly. Therefore, there should be some logical argument as to why material nature should necessarily affect human beings differently at different points in time in a fixed cyclical manner.

With all due respect, your argument in favor of the circle as opposed to a line as put forth by Aristotle does not hold up to observed facts. The belief that uniform, circular motion was godly, perfect, harmonious, etc., was used to support a geocentric view of the world for centuries. Accordingly, all of the planets and the sun and stars, revolved around the earth in orbits that were uniform in speed and circular in motion. Why? Because the cirle is perfect. God would not make the world in an imperfect way.

During the 16th century, however, such a view could no longer explain the observed phenomena. Although Kepler himself regarded it as true he, to his own astonishment, discovered that the motion of the planets were indeed non-uniform and elliptical in their orbit, not circular. My point being that regarding a circle as something intrinsically better than a line is a prejudiced predisposition that may actually hinder our understanding of the world rather than reveal its true nature.

All in all, it seems that the process of nature can be either linear or cyclical. It is the backdrop of human affairs and is therefore neutral in regard to how it affects human progress. I see no reason to believe that somehow nature “causes” human beings “according to a fixed cycle” to be more, or less, religious, or pious, or degraded, or spiritual, or anything else. Perhaps it is more like a canvas that human society paints with its collective actions, thoughts, and words.

If nature has the ability to affect human behavior and beliefs, then that effect would not be predestined or pre-ordained but would be constantly in flux and pliable depending on the collective input it receives from humanity at any given time. Perhaps you are somewhat in agreement with me when you say that, “The cycles of nature are its cosmic habit. They represent the cosmic aspect of karma. In relation to the cosmic order, the law of karma is the pattern that nature has acquired as a result of its repeated action. The appearance of kali yuga in the cosmic behavior of nature generally corresponds with an aggregate of moral degradation generated by individual souls that comes to play itself out.”

Thanks for the information on the political party started by Prabhupada. Now that you mentioned it I seem to vaguely remember something about that. I am aware of Raghu’s ideas. He sent Jill a copy of some of his writings to read and comment on. I find his concepts a bit too orthodox for my taste although I think what he’s doing has great merit. Since you have mentioned him I really should get back in touch with him.

Once again, thanks for your thoughts and comments. They have helped me work out my own understanding on this topic. As I said at the beginning of this email, I will defer to you for the last word so you care to do so. I hope you do.

Humbly yours,
Mdas

Dear Mdas,

When I said, “The cyclical sense of cosmic order experienced by the rishis is more appealing to our faculty of reason than a rectilinear concept.”

I was referring to 1) the abstract reality of our rational faculty’s ability to relate better to a cyclical rather than a linear explanation of the cosmic order, and 2) the idea that the experience of the rishis is more compelling than the modern perception (of a few) that the world is and has always been evolving in the direction of infinite progress.

Regarding 1) I said, “A circle has a pattern and exhibits rhythm and order, whereas a line has none of these characteristics. While a line may be accidental or random, a circle always displays rationality and purpose. If the process of nature is to be defined, it must have a pattern. A series of changes that has no beginning or end and no purpose, is patternless. Any particular point in a line either stands by itself or in relation to its entire past. If it stands by itself, it cannot be defined owing to its being unrelated. If it stands in relation to its entire past, is also cannot be defined because its entire past is unknowable, having, as it does, no beginning. If however the process of nature is cyclical, every point in the circle is part of a coherent system and thus rationally understandable. Our rational faculty finds it easier to accommodate the order and rhythm of a circle than it does the random nature of a line.”

I think the paragraph above still stands and is not refuted by your objection.

As for 2), the experience of the rishis is one that is offered to all. Here I am referring the experience of self-realization. The self realized rishis experience that lead them to conclude that the cosmic order is cyclical involves experiencing themselves as units of consciousness around which the world of psychic and physical experience revolves. They experienced that while they themselves remained still and constant as units of Brahman, the psychic and physical world came and went over and over again.

Their conclusion regarding the cosmic order is not based merely on the apparent cycle of seasons and other similar rather simplistic observations. Moreover, their experience of the cyclic nature of the cosmic order involved experience of the hub of consciousness around which the cycle revolves. Other than their conclusions about the cosmic order, there are numerous other compelling reasons for us to pursue their self-realized experience, at which time their reasoning as to the cyclical nature of the cosmos will be our experience as well.

Your reasoning seems faulty to me. It does not seem to be based as much on experience as it is on a superficial analysis of human history. Although it may appear reasonable to conclude that the world order is linear and evolving continually in the direction of infinite progress because one can site many instances of consistent human progress, this analysis ignores the regression that accompany this progress.

For example, one could argue that the entire industrial revolution has given birth to an environmental holocaust that is returning the planet to the ice age. The social evolution that gave rise to modern government brought with it massive political oppression, genocide, and so on. The very democracy in the United States, some argue, is at risk if it really exists at all any more, as mega corporations control the elected. These people argue that we have gone backwards from the direction of the course set by the founding fathers. If we consider the unborn child to be a living being, the medical and sociopolitical progress that has made abortion legal in the United States has shortened the average person’s longevity by many years.

There is much more to be said along these lines. It is not my particular field of study, but others from the secular world have written books about the illusion of human progress. General experience reveals that humanity has both progressed and regressed over and over again. I suspect it will continue to do so forever, while some souls will take the leap of well reasoned faith from the ferris wheel of the material circus and tread the sure ground of unthinkable path of consistent progress that leads to liberation and ever expanding love of God.

Rdgs,
Swami B. V. Tripurari

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