The Tradition’s Own Version
Hindu accounts of the ancient world and Indian history differ from most academic versions. However, the development of empathetic research methods and the emergence of “new chronologies” is bringing together the two approaches (though school texts often present dated versions of academic theory). Conflicting opinions reflect the dynamics between different epistemologies—empirical and scriptural—and also between predominant Eastern and Western world-views. To better understand Hinduism, and its ways of seeing, interpreting and responding to the world, it is essential to examine its conceptual view of its own heritage.
Many Hindus do not believe that a non-technological past presupposes a necessarily poor and primitive one. This picture shows how one artist envisions a previous glorious age and a society based on performing dharma and relying on the natural gifts of God and nature.
- Hindus believe in sanatana-dharma— the eternal religion—encompassing the concepts of eternal time, universal truths and a human history that recedes indefinitely.
- Time is viewed as cyclical. History repeats itself not in every detail, but by perennially manifesting similar phenomena (much like the revolving seasons).
- Time is degenerative, in the same way that we only experience getting older. According to Hindu thought, upon death and rebirth the soul rapidly “grows younger”; similarly, after prolonged moral and spiritual degradation, there is a rapid regeneration in the world. Therefore, with the passing of time, society is not necessarily becoming more civilised in terms of human and spiritual values.
- True religion, as expressed through Hinduism and other traditions, is ever existing, but subject to periods of degradation and revival. God reveals it in a manner suitable for particular social and cultural milieus.
- We are now half-way through the duration of this universe, consisting of 100 years of the creator, Brahma. His one year consists of 360 celestial days, each made up of 1,000 “great ages” (maha-yugas). Each maha-yuga is 4,320,000 earth years.
- In the present maha-yuga, we entered the fourth age, Kali yuga, some 5,000 years ago. At that time the Vedic truths, previously transmitted orally, were first written down.
- Different ages feature suitable processes of self and God-realisation, and the appearance of particular incarnations of Vishnu. These are shown below:
|Age||Predominant Spiritual Practice||Avatars|
|Meditation||First five avatars: Matsya to Vamana|
|Yajna (offering of Vedic sacrifice)||Parashurama and Ramachandra (Rama)|
|Temple worship (puja)||Krishna’s descent and the Mahabharata war (at end)|
25% religious, declining to complete degradation by the end
|Personal practices that offer relatively quick effective routes to liberation often through specific mantra (prayers) or tantra, using techniques which emphasise the importance of Shakti, the feminine energy, expressed as Shiva-Shakti, Radha Krishna, etc.||Buddha and, still to come at the end of Kali-yuga, Kalki|
The Hindu perspective on history is expressed in the following ways:
- Belief in a previous glorious age, as portrayed in many stories and myths. This has given rise to many types of spiritual idealism, including the notion of “Rama-rajya,” the perfect reign of Lord Rama. Some nationalistic movements have adopted these ideals to further their political aims.
- Ancient heroic figures, both male and female, are still admired as relevant and timeless role models. Many Hindus consider them timeless archetypes.
- There is sometimes tension between traditional Hindu values and widely accepted post-modern views, including “political correctness.” Hindus often consider their values eternal and universal rather than outdated.
- Hindus often claim that India was “the cradle of civilisation.” They reject the notion that India is only now emerging from a tribal, barbaric, and superstitious past that is less civilised than the West. These different opinions reflect different criteria for defining “civilisation.”
- Authors often claim that India was learned in many sciences well before the West. However, there is much debate regarding the compatibility of traditional Hindu values with those underpinning modern science. Some consider technology the antithesis of spirituality, based on the exploitation of nature; others, perhaps more modern in their approach, consider that the two disciplines—science and religion—are interdependent and entirely consistent.
- Approaches to Darwinian evolution range from passive acceptance to assertive confrontation. Traditionalists claim that real evolution is spiritual (through reincarnation) and that material evolution is not ascending (from lower life forms) but descending (from God and the progenitors.) It appears that the Hindu notion of a non-linear world history confronts Darwinian belief that human life is always progressing with time.
“Because or the powerful influence of the age of Kali, mercy, religion, honesty, cleanliness, tolerance, memory, life-span, and physical strength will diminish day by day. Wealth will be considered the sign of good birth, and justice will be won through power alone. A man will be known as a brahmana for his wearing a thread, and one expert at juggling words will be considered a scholar. Marriage will be arranged simply by verbal agreement and beauty will be thought to depend on one’s hairstyle. Success in business will depend on deceit, and filling the belly will become the goal of life. As the earth thus becomes crowded with a corrupt population, whoever among any of the social classes shows himself to be the strongest will gain political power.”
Bhagavat Purana 12.2.1-7 (selected passages)
Related Values and Issues
- What differentiates civilised society from uncivilised?
- Do different nations maintain different versions of history?
- Why is Darwinian evolution largely accepted by most people today?
- What determines our values and our particular world view?
- Why do we tend to think that today’s society is the most advanced it has ever been?
Gandhi, upon being asked, “What do you think of Western civilization?,” replied, “It’s a good idea!”
Meaning and Purpose
- The nature of time
- The nature and purpose of human life