By Anand Veeraraj
Meghalayan Age — Axiality – Gestalts — New Green Hermeneutics – Meghalayan Covenant — Ecological Commonwealth/Civilization
The Meghalayan Age and the Axial Age (the first religious and philosophical turning-point in history) are in dialogue here. The science of ecology and the traditional philosophy of religion are like water and oil; they do not jell. These topics deal with global climate changes and how they affect human-world relations; their perceptions, and approaches are diametrically atypical. Ecosystems are organic, relational, ever evolving with human communities imbedded within. Contrarily, most axial religious traditions and formulations are monadic, thrive on exclusivity and singularity; or else they will not be reckoned as faith traditions.
Until recently, scholars of Axial Age were oblivious to global environmental changes and climate catastrophes that visited ancient civilizations. This paper explores the links between the two – the Meghalayan climate crisis and the rise of Axial religions, spiritualities, and philosophies. The notion of an “axis of history” serves as a largescale interpretive tool in the study of religion, showing among other things, the effects of climate crisis on the evolution of human societies and cultures, and the distinctions between pre-axial and post-axial religions. This presentation, in some ways, is provocative, subversive in exacting why we call for a new Axial revolution – a second paradigm shift of our religious and cultural existence at this propitious time. It seeks to unmask the philosophical and religious underpinnings of the so-called “Axial Age.”
- Is it prudent to emboss the Meghalayan Age on the Axial Age or vice versa?
- How and why did the ancient humans come to trade in the world-affirming dispositions of the pre-axial times with the world-denying faiths of the post-axial times?
- “What is Axial about the Axial Age?” – a question central to Robert Bellah.
- Can India show the way to save humanity from the impending ecological catastrophes?
- How do we covenant with the natural world in seizing an ecological commonwealth?
Recounting a coherent comprehensive story of the Axial Age, by no means is easy. Given the limitations of this essay, we opt for a unifying narrative that would establish a cohesive logic for the dialogue. And that narrative is traced through how I was educated and eventually got involved with the environmental crisis sweeping across India, my home country, and how my faith and activism are being transformed and enriched in the process. So, let me begin with the last chapter of the story of my enlightenment — the “Meghalayan Golden Spike” pronounced in July 2018 – and proceed with the story in reverse to the advent of the Axial Age. And finally, we loop back to our hope in seizing an ecological commonwealth, by witnessing to the ancient new faith — the Meghalayan Faith.
ANAND VEERARAJ is an ordained minister in the Church of South India and serves as the Pastor-emeritus of the New Jersey Indian Church/Trinity Community Church [UCC & PC-USA], and the Director of the Princeton Forum, New Jersey. He is the author of the books Green History of Religion, Earthen Vessels: The Paradox of Christian Leadership and the co-editor of the book, Pilgrims at the Crossroads: Asian Indian Christians at the North American Frontier. He has written over 40 scholarly and popular essays for journals and book chapters. He earned a PhD in Religion and Ecology from Claremont University, California. He lives with his family near Princeton, New Jersey.
- Meghalaya, the Garden of Eden in the East
Meghalaya is a small state in North India, adjoining the country of Bangladesh. The word, “Meghalaya” in Sanskrit means, “An Abode of Clouds;” in Tamil, “A Temple of Clouds.” Indeed, it is a fitting moniker for the place and the people who live in Meghalaya. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, especially during the monsoon seasons. Travel brochures promoting tourism to Meghalaya depict a region with low hanging rain clouds, embracing the rocky hills, hamlets, and valleys with scores of waterfalls, streams, and lakes. About 70% of the state is subtropical forest ecoregion, with a biodiversity of rare mammals, birds, and plants. A small portion of the forested area is preserved as “sacred groves” for religious rituals, protected from commercial exploitation. Indeed, Meghalaya is a template for an “ecological commonwealth” — an abode made for gods, people, and nature to live in harmony and in sustainable ways. If ever there was or is a Garden of Eden in the East, it is here in Meghalaya. Interestingly, the garden swarms with scores of serpents, especially the King Cobra, one of the most venomous snake species on earth. If you ever happen to hike through the forest trails in Meghalaya, don’t stop to talk with any of these serpents!
Meghalaya is an exceedingly small state, with an area covering 8,660 square miles, roughly 2/3rd the size of Rhode Island. It has a population of about 3.7 million people. As tribal people, Meghalayans have historically followed a matrilineal system where the family lineage and inheritance are traced through women. The youngest daughter inherits all the family’s wealth and takes care of her parents in their old age. About 75% of the Meghalayans are Christians – Presbyterians, Baptists, and Catholics. English is the official language of the state.
In December 1986, I published an article in the journal, The National Council of Churches in India Review [NCCIR] entitled, “Environmental Mission of the Church.” The article highlighted the alarming environmental crisis that was engulfing the Indian subcontinent. It began with a developing story about the drinking water scarcity encountered in Cherrapunji Hills and the surrounding regions in Meghalaya. [Cherrapunji Hills received an annual rainfall of about 500 inches. Now the rainfall has dwindled down to annual average of 470 inches]. Meghalaya, which was called, “the wettest place on earth,” was now nicknamed, “the wettest desert on earth.” The reasons were obvious. Large scale commercial felling of trees had not only denuded these green hills making them barren, but also caused extensive soil erosions leading to massive flooding at the foothills, especially in Bangladesh during monsoon seasons. That article in the NCCIR journal on India’s environmental crisis was perhaps the first of its kind published in any ecumenical journals in India. Since then, major Christian journals in India began highlighting the growing environmental crisis on the Indian subcontinent and called the local churches to address the issue as their missional calling.
- The Meghalayan Golden Spike
Meghalaya has been in the news lately. On July 18, 2018, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) — a subcommittee of the International Union of Geographic Sciences (IUGS) which is tasked with defining the geologic time scale — voted to create a new geological age labeled as the Meghalayan Age. The Meghalayan age is the youngest, newest unit of the geologic timescale that arose about 4.2 ka (thousand years) ago. The age was marked by extreme global warming, followed by widespread drought leading to the collapse of ancient civilizations.
The ICS divides earth’s 4.6-billion-year geological history into eras, periods, epochs, and ages. Holocene Epoch, the current geological epoch began at the end of the last ice age c. 11,700 years ago. Until recently, the epoch did not comprise precise labels demarking the geological stratification within its timelines. Now the epoch is divided up into three ages: the Greenlandian, the Northgrippian and the Meghalayan. The first two ages of the Holocene epoch – Greenlandian and Northgrippian were identified, not from the customary rocky layers, rather from the isotopes detected in the ice core drilled from the depths of the earth’s ice sheets. The Greenlandian age experienced the rising of warming trends with copious precipitation. The middle phase of the Holocene epoch — now referred to as the Northgrippian age — continued with the ripple effects of the melting ice sheets, runoff from c. 8,300 years ago to the start of the Meghalayan age.
The Meghalayan age was marked by uptick in global warming and a megadrought that lasted two decades or longer, followed by a sudden dry cool down. The Meghalayan golden spike is epitomized in isotopes of oxygen atoms present in the layers of a stalagmite growing from the floor of the Mawmluh cave in Meghalaya. [Mawmluh cave, located at an elevation of 1,290 meters, is one of the longest and deepest caves in India]. Prof. Mike Walker of the University of Wales, UK, who led the international team of Holocene scientists says, “The two most prominent shifts occur at about 4,300 and about 4,100 years before present, so the mid-point between the two would be 4,200 years before present (2018), and this is the age that we attribute to the Meghalayan golden spike.”
How did the ICS scientists nail down these geological timelines? “This is the first time,” writes Malavika Vyawahare, Hindustan Times, “a geological time scale change has been linked to cultural event – in this case the collapse of civilizations.” For this reason, the geological stratigraphy of the Meghalayan age is now defined, not only by the global warming and its effects on the environment, but also by the repercussions of human activities – pastoral-agrarian pursuits, mass migration, organized warfare, rise and fall of ancient civilizations, etc.
On a side note, not all is kumbaya with the ICS/IUGS scientists. Random rumblings of contradicting opinions are heard among the ICS scientists on the prudence of nailing down the Meghalayan age. Some scientists wish to backtrack on the original declaration. On the other side, open revolt has broken out among the scientists of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) — a unit within the ICS — for not opting for the buzz word, “Anthropocene” (human activity as the dominant influence on climate and the environment). The term was coined by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize recipient for discovering the effects of ozone–depleting compounds. Sadly, he died on January 28th of this year. Some AWG scientists push for Anthropocene to be recognized, replacing the word, Meghalayan. But the debate gets bogged down as to the exact beginnings of Anthropocene and its geological markers. The AWG is expected to conclude its work to select a golden spike by 2022 and submit its final report to the ICS. There is no certainty that the report will be accepted and voted by the ICS. The conversations are becoming more heated (political than scientific) than in finding a potential geochemical marker. Without a resolution, the debate may continue into the foreseeable future. Till then, the term “Meghalayan Age” will reign supreme among the ICS/IUGS scientists, geologists and the global environmental science practitioners. And that allows us time and opportunity to keep riding on the wings of the Meghalayan fame.
- Karl Jaspers and the “Axial Age”
Nonetheless, we would need to query whether the Meghalayan Age geological markers have the grit to index the complexities of the Axial Age traditions, philosophies and spiritualities. How do the metaphysics of axiality (religion, philosophy, and spiritualities) mesh with the science of ecology, geology and climate change? At the moment, science and religion seem to run amok, independent of each other. No meaningful dialogue exists between the protagonists of the Meghalayan Age and the Axial Age theologians, philosophers and historians. The recent pronouncement of the ICS scientists on the “Meghalayan Age” offers us the opportunity to bring these camps together for a dialogue.
The Axial Age, [die Achsenzeit] was observed by the German philosopher, Karl Jaspers (1883-1969). Jaspers propounded that the age was a global religious phenomenon that emerged during the six centuries, from 800 to 200 BCE. Prominent religious luminaries — philosophers, prophets, and sages rose on the world stage to grapple with issues of ultimate reality, nature of humanity, and the world in fresh new ways. These religious leaders and philosophers, together with their cohorts became centers of new religious movements and schools of philosophies. Scholars like John Cobb and John Hick have sought to expand the temporal boundaries of the age beyond Jaspers’ initial six centuries.
On the other hand, we would also need to query the fundamental axial enigma as to how the axial religions and philosophies rose simultaneously without any concord with similar movements elsewhere around the globe? And why some groups were left out from participating in the axial advances or its foibles? For instance, women and dark-skinned folks were generally excluded from the axial graces and privileges. Primal, tribal, and indigenous societies were often by passed from marching in the axial parade. While every scholar sought to expound the axial phenomenon from their own academic expertise, no one offered a credible, all-encompassing rationale as to why axial movements rose around the world simultaneously in the first place. Neither did they offer any credible rational as to why some groups and societies were left out in the process.
Many markers of axiality are still up for grab. May we ask, “What is the defining characteristic of axiality?” An “Age of Transcendence” (Benjamin Schwarts). An “Age of Criticism” (Arnaldo Momigliano). “The relativization of mundane realities” (Shmuel Eisenstadt). “An upsurge in the reflexivity of human beings” (Björn Wittrock). “The Age of Rational Reflective Consciousness vs. Mythical Existence” (John B. Cobb, Jr.) “The Divine Revelation of Truth” (Robert N. Bellah and Hans Joas). “Salvation/Liberation as Human Transformation” (John Hick). “Religious Rejection of the World” (Max Weber). We could go on to add any number of “defining characteristics” to the list.
Did the scholars go on a spree, cherry-picking those defining axial characteristics? No. They were fishing for what distinguished the “axial” from “non-axial” human existence. And they had to sift through scores of tenets, visions, spiritual practices of axial luminaries, prophets, sages, and philosophers from all corners of the globe. After a rigorous process of sifting, almost all of them agreed on a single “axis of history” – a phenomenon which Max Weber called, the “religious rejection of the world,” – conversely, the “human alienation from the world” – a sentiment common to all post-axial religions and philosophies. This post-axial stance was diametrically divergent from the virtual acceptance of the world found in pre-axial societies that had lasted for thousands of years prior to the advent of axial revolution. What caused the post-axial disenchantment with the world, while at the same time exalting an otherworldly realm as true, worthy and infinitely valuable? There is of course no simple answer to this question.
Karl Jaspers came out with the “Axial Age” thesis in 1949 with the publishing of his seminal work, The Origin and Goal of History. Max Weber (1864–1920) lived before Karl Jaspers (1883–1969). What was special about Weber’s idea of the “religious rejection of the world?” Did it have anything to do with environmental concerns? Modern environmental movements began when Rachel Carson published her landmark book, Silent Spring in 1962. On close examination, Weber’s idea of “religious rejection of the world,” had little to do with Karl Jaspers’ axiality or Rachel Carson’s environmental concerns. Weber is best known for his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Weber’s idea – the “religious rejection of the world” was not a mild “disenchantment with the world.” Rather, it was about the “metaphysical rejection of the world,” a rejection that is far more sinister than a simple withdrawal from the world. It spouts from the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination, a doctrine that exhorts “Ascetic Protestantism.” “Ascetic Protestantism” calls for hard work, virtuous frugal living that avoids worldly pleasures. Ultimately it leads to accumulation of personal wealth, a major force in the rise of market-driven capitalism.
There are various types of religious asceticism. But Ascetic Protestantism draws most Calvinist Christians back into vigorous engagement with the world, not for the love of the world, but to extract nature’s irreplaceable resources for what they are worth. Interestingly, Weber sought to apply his thesis to Indian context where he would find most radical of all versions of “world rejection,” especially among Buddhist and Jain communities. Comparatively, the type of asceticism we encounter in India, although extremely harsh on corporeal human existence, is non-vicious and nonviolent toward the natural world. One wonders whether the scholars who concurred with Max Weber’s “religious rejection of the world” ever considered these arguments seriously. [We will pick up the story of “world rejection” when we deal with the Indian saga, in section VII: “Can India Show the Way?”].
- “What is Axial about the Axial Age?” Robert Bellah.
Understanding the axial phenomenon in relation to the History of Religion requires a multi-disciplinary approach. The Axial Age did not emerge in a vacuum. The study of the Axial times requires that we draw resources from disparate disciplines of science – geography, geology, climatology, paleontology, archeology, astronomy, animal, plant, and human ecology, DNA signature maps of human migration, population genomics, philology etc. — and especially the evolutionary histories of bioregions in which humans were natural components.
Robert Bellah, in his monumental work on Axial Religions, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age posed a question central to his thesis, “What is Axial about the Axial Age?” Bellah was narrowly focused and sidestepped the possibility that the “religious rejection of the world” found in all Living World Religions, might after all, was caused, first and foremost by the exasperating environmental upheavals of the pre-axial epoch and how ancient societies responded to these environmental calamities. Bellah himself came close to stumbling upon the issue, when he asked, “(W)hat made the axial age axial?” As a sociologist, Bellah was fixated primarily with the social ethos of the axial formulations. Nonetheless he went on to concur with Karl Jaspers’ thesis, “The Axial Period too ended in failure. History went on [Emphasis mine],” and thereby affirming his fervent beliefs in the primacy of human history over the changing saga of human-world relations. Bellah concluded, “It is this [history] that has given such dynamism to the axial traditions.”
What then is great about the Axial Age? Did the Axial revolution really end in failure? To some extent, yes. We believe that the axial praxis hit a dead-end, consummating in modernity which has proven to be detrimental to the wellbeing of human beings as well as the sustainability of the environment. The warning signs were there when the first Axial revolution emerged during the late Holocene epoch some 4.2 ka (thousand) years ago. Whether the Axial revolution, with its multi-dimensional cultural and historical processes can ever be squarely harmonized with the confines of the Meghalayan Age and its geological scheme is doubtful. The exacting Meghalayan markers, precisely determined, leave no wiggle room.
- The Story of Green History of Religion
Were the ICS scientists and climatologists the first ones to nail down the Meghalayan environmental crisis and identify the cause for the collapse of ancient civilizations? Not really! The protagonists of the Meghalayan age — the ICS scientists and historians — were oblivious to the synchronized spread of axial revolutions all over the world. We submit that our research team arrived at analogous conclusions almost thirty years earlier. Although we did not ascribe any monikers to these large-scale events, we reached similar conclusions from a distinctive vantage point, namely the rise of novel religious traditions and philosophies which has come to define the Axial revolution. Our study showed that more than anything else, the spurt of axial religious and philosophical traditions was a candid response to the disastrous effects of planet-wide climate changes and the mega-drought that followed resulting in the collapse of ancient civilizations. One factor missing in our study was a geological moniker that would index the turmoil of Axial revolutions. All that changed on July 18, 2018, when the ICS voted to create a new geological unit, the Meghalayan Age. The thesis of Green History of Religion was finally vindicated by the global geological scientific community.
How we arrived at these findings is a story by itself, narrated in Green History of Religion. In 1989, I began my doctoral program in the field of Religion and Ecology at the Claremont Graduate University, California. [My graduate program was interdisciplinary, specially designed for my electives]. My study sought to show the root causes for the rise of Axial Age. Until recently hardly any scholars of the history of religion saw the correlations between the late-Holocene climate crisis and the rise of Axial religious traditions. We sought to answer why this was so. We began to suspect that the “human alienation from the world” becoming the foundational premise of most axial thoughts and traditions must have had something to do with how ancient societies experienced the natural world during the millennia preceding axial times. Bewildering catastrophes must have swept across the globe leading to synchronized collapse of pre-axial societies and ancient civilizations. Might those unnerving experiences have accentuated human disenchantment with nature leading to the “religious rejection of the world?” Published works of eminent scholars on the history of religions were of little help; they were tinctured through and through with dualistic and anthropocentric motifs; the natural world had no place in their religious views or their research.
Midway through writing my dissertation I hit a dead-end. After three revisions, my dissertation almost fell apart; I could not find that essential linchpin on which to hang my thesis. Frustrated as I was, I sought the help of a friend, a climatologist/oceanographer at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab in Princeton. My scientist friend read through my half-baked dissertation and provided me with scores of books, journals, and especially climate models and charts of the last 12,000 years of earth’s geological history. Our enquiry led us to look at planet-wide changes – climatic and environmental – that were in the offing during the millennia preceding and following the rise of the Axial Age.
In the light of the new information gleaned from available climate models, I was obliged to revise my dissertation. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our suspicion might after all be true. Our findings showed that the planet went through a warming trend at the start of the Holocene Epoch about 11,700 BCE, causing extreme climate changes across the globe. The trend accelerated during the Meghalayan age (coinciding with the rise of axial times), successively disrupting pastoral and agrarian economies that sustained the first city-states. The warming trend intensified rapidly, from about 1,500 BCE, quickening the rise and fall of ancient civilizations at the core centers. The tumultuous social and ecological crisis of those times became conducive for fermenting world-denying motifs that became the bedrock of all axial religions and philosophies. It was indeed a global crisis of epic proportions unparalleled in human history. In our opinion, scholars on human history, culture, religion, and philosophy have yet to fully grasp the enormity of the harm axial thoughts and philosophies have visited upon human societies and the world of nature. This, in a nutshell, is the thesis of my book, Green History of Religion.
- The New Green Hermeneutics – “The Meghalayan Monocles”
Notice the title of the book, “Green History of Religion.” The title is rather generic; it does not have a subtitle either. We intentionally left the title modest, unembellished. Neither did we want to claim expertise in the science of ecology or the philosophy of religion or the discipline of biblical hermeneutics. The only redeeming features that made the volume marketable were the foreword for the book and a book review by John Cobb, published widely. Writing a review of the book, Cobb says,
This is a truly groundbreaking book! [Emphasis mine]. Despite all our talk of overcoming dualism, our historical and systematic accounts of the history of religion rarely take the relation of human beings and their natural environment seriously into account. [The book] devotes several chapters to recent interpretations of what Jaspers calls the Axial Age to show how oblivious most of them [scholars on religion] are to the natural world. I myself certainly ignored nature in my account until I was educated by Veeraraj through working with him on his dissertation. That experience was revelatory for me. . . . Taking the changing relation of human beings to their natural environment into account deeply transforms the understanding of the history of religion. [Emphasis mine].
Cobb went on to invite scholars of different disciplines to take on parallel projects. I personally think that the study of religion taught in our universities is deeply flawed and wanting. Even the use of the term, “religion” to describe the axial novelties is overly tenuous and problematic.
The publishing of Green History of Religion raked in unintended dividends, not so much in monetary returns [we hardly made any profit from publishing/marketing the book]; but its contribution to the study of the history of religions and for developing the tools crucial for biblical hermeneutics, was enormous. For us, it was immensely ingenious, ground-breaking, and gratifying. By coincidence, this was the first time that any student of religion has ever tried their luck with Green Hermeneutics!
We have therefore, for the first time, opted to christen this New Green Hermeneutics as the “Meghalayan Monocles” (MM). And we call for the advancement and refinement of this discipline for the study of religion, theology and the reading of sacred texts. Until recently, hermeneutics has remained a specialized discipline, narrowly focused within the confines of linguistics or epistemology, primarily employed in interpreting sacred texts. Such constrictions have made hermeneutics an autonomous discipline, at times spinning into a spurious discipline with banal outcomes as witnessed in our Sunday sermons. Lately the boundaries of the discipline have been extended to include philology, philosophy, theology, history, jurisprudence, psychology, and social sciences, but it has yet to venture out to extend its boundaries to embrace human-world relations, the disciplines of ecology and environmental sciences. [A word of caution! The call for “New Green Hermeneutics” should not be bemused with the destructive consequences of the “Green Revolution” or the pseudo environmental philosophy of the “Green Bible”].
What we now call for is to enlarge these established hermeneutical margins to embrace other fundamental disciplines for the study of the history of religion and theology. We read our sacred scriptures side-by-side with the climate models charts, population genomics, DNA signature maps of human migration, philological graphs etc. to plot when and where in the evolution of human societies, momentous historical events — warfare, plagues, social unrests, mass migration, rise and fall of civilizations transpired, and how and why, in that milieu, did religious luminaries, prophets, philosophers, sages, ascetics, and wisdom traditions emerge, and what tenets, rituals, liturgies, scriptures, creeds and the multi-various religious and cultural paraphernalia and products were fabricated. Chart updated April 8, 2020
The climate model chart primed by Cliff Harris and Randy Mann presented here, shows that the Meghalayan Golden Spike occurred c. 2200 BCE, followed by sudden cool down. In the context of growing environmental catastrophes at the core centers, how would we read (for instance) the biblical story of the Garden of Eden — the expulsion of the first parents, Adam and Eve from the garden? Doesn’t it point to a traumatic ecological and environmental crisis that struck the ancient pastoral-agrarian economies like a thunder bolt? Christian theology refers to it as “the fall.” Students of green history learn to read ancient texts in their eco-historical-social contexts. Thus, for us, “Green Historians,” the “fall” of human beings from divine grace as rendered in the Genesis account is an index to the eco-social crises that engulfed the ancient world following the widespread adoption of agriculture and the climate catastrophes of the Meghalayan Age.
The adoption of agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants caused deep fissures and far-reaching changes in the human relationship with nature; it came with alarming ecological and social costs. C. Dean Freudenburger confirms this by saying,
Agriculture, closely related to global deforestation by making room for expanding cropping systems, is the most environmentally abusive activity perpetuated by the human species.
The widespread adoption of agriculture in exchange for the millennia of hunting and gathering ways of life caused the depravity of human nature, accentuating evils in the society at large. Human greed and violence against fellow human beings — (Cain killing his brother Abel, a case in point) eventually led to the widespread use of organized warfare as a means of subsistence that advanced walled-cities, urban civilizations, followed by the rise and fall of empires one after the other.
Likewise, how would we interpret the Exodus event? Did Exodus occur primarily by the Divine prompting the Hebrew slaves to flee Egypt from the tyranny of the Pharaohs or did the tribes abandon the fertile plains of the Nile river basin due to catastrophic climate changes, crop failures, and food shortages? Just when the Exodus event was taking shape, widespread social unrests were reported among the steppe herders of the Indo-Iranian plateaus due in part to the desiccation and desertification in the region. Amidst this anarchy, rose Zoroastrianism, (around 1,200 BCE), one of the most dichotomous eschatological philosophies the world has ever seen. Zoroastrian monotheism and eschatology eventually came to tincture the Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam in tandem. How about Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor who freed the Jewish captives and sponsored their return to their home country in the 6th century BCE? Wasn’t it analogous to the Exodus event, although in a different vein? Why did organized warfare and ignominious social institutions develop and got firmly established during axial times? Most scholars of the history of religion missed these cues.
- Can India show the way?
One of my regrets in writing Green History of Religion was that I did not have the wherewithal to explore the religious developments on the Indian subcontinent. My writings were limited to what transpired in the Bible Lands – Levant, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia. I hope to remedy this lacuna in my future research projects. This underscores the central premise of the MM, the need to unpack our sacred writs, philosophies and spiritualities in the contexts of the Indian eco-social sagas within which scores of axialities grew. To make these hermeneutics stand on solid grounds, we would need to first gather, among other things, climate charts of the Holocene epoch for South Asia, maps of population genomics, DNA signatures of human migrations and philology etc. With these aids and with some rudimentary introduction to Sanskrit literature and translations, Indian historiography and geography, we should be able to interpret the vast number of ancient holy writs available to us, from every religious, philosophical, spiritual persuasions.
The land of India has much to contribute to the Axial debate and to the Axial paradigm shift 2.0. “The history of South Asia,” write Daniel Mullins and Daniel Hoyer, “is perhaps most supportive of the conventional Axial Age thesis.” Applying the discipline of MM, let me briefly narrate the saga of India, beginning with the collapse of the Indian Valley Civilization (IVC), followed by Aryan Migration into the Indian subcontinent, the rise of Indian axiality — Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the development of Dravidian axiality and finally the tenacity of tribal and indigenous societies for survival. This brief narration by no means is meant to cover the entire gamut of Indian axial experiences in-depth. Nonetheless, we need to pose a few questions here without offering any pronouncements. We hope that the students of religion will take these up for further investigation and research.
The History of India begins with the birth of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), (alternatively called, the Harappan Civilization) that flourished during the Northgrippian age, the middle phase of the Holocene Epoch (c. 8,300-2,400 BCE). Northgrippian Age is known for melting ice sheets, copious rain fall, steady monsoon seasons that lasted till the start of the Meghalayan age. The IVC that survived from c. 5,500 to 1,500 BCE was larger than the three ancient urban civilizations – Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were the major urban centers, with nearly 1,000 other satellite centers that flourished in the region in every direction. “The total population of the civilization is thought to have been upward of 5 million, and its territory stretched over 900 miles (1,500 km) along the banks of the Indus River and then in all directions outward.” These cities were sustained by agrarian-pastoral economies and trade with Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Meghalayan climate crisis caused the collapse of this ancient civilization. Jaspers’ Axial Age [800–200 BCE] could not extend to encompass this crucial harbinger of the Indian axiality.
From the archaeological evidence we conclude, that the IVC societies were literate, cultured, nonviolent, egalitarian with no caste or class distinctions; they followed some modicum of law and order without craving for a priestly monarch, a prophet or a savior. These urban centers and the surrounding hamlets had no sacred precincts for central worship or rituals; no sharp distinctions existed between the sacred and the secular. The inhabitants observed fertility cults and goddess worship; the inhabitants were down to earth; did not entertain the plausibility of life after death. Had no standing armies, no equine forces, no chariots, no ziggurats, no watchtowers. The Harappan cities collapsed when the Meghalayan climate crisis struck and the inhabitants scattered across the Gangetic plains and into Southern India. If ever there was a golden age in the Indian saga, it was the Harappan civilization which lasted for nearly 4,000 years. We wish we knew more about this lost civilization. Alas, to this day the Harappan scripts remain undeciphered.
Aryan Migration and the rise of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism: Hindu scriptures (Vedas, Upanishads, Aranyakas, Epics, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas, Tantras, etc.) were composed and orally transmitted for centuries before being written down by sages in contemplation along the foothills of Himalayas, on the great plains of Ganges and in the jungles of Videha and Uttarakhand of Himachal regions. Rig Veda, the first of the four Vedas was composed from 2,300 to 1,200 BCE when bands of Aryans, the steppe herders from the Zagros regions began migrating into the Indian subcontinent, driven by the growing desertification and desiccations in their lands. These steppe herders had by then been influenced by Zoroastrianism, a radical-dualistic-apocalyptic religious ideology ever to have emerged in the ancient world. Aryans were light-skinned people; being pastoral people, they venerated sky gods. Having settled down initially and intermixed with the dark-skinned inhabitants of the Harappan cities, Aryans gradually moved onto to occupying the vast plains of the Ganges from about 1,000 BCE.
How could this migration, a mundane human response to the changing environment trigger caste-based societies during the Vedic times? Did the white-skinned pastoral groups ever clash with the dark-skinned agrarians in the Harappan society? Why on earth did the rabid carnivorous, the “Noble Ones,” become vegans overnight? Why do scores of sages and sadhus retreat to forest havens? Did they seek out forest hideouts out of their love for nature? Or did they opt for the solitude of nature to evade social contracts, familial responsibilities in quest for personal salvation and enlightenment? How do we account for the rise of Buddhism, a world-negating philosophy to rise in 6th century BCE? And in the same vein, we witness the rise of Jainism, a religion of nonviolence and extreme asceticism. Mahavira, a preeminent mover of Jainism was a contemporary of Buddha. Were these sages and ascetics responding to the changing environment by seeking their own salvation/liberation through denying corporeal existence and withdrawing from the world? Buddhism did not take roots in India. King Ashoka converted to Buddhism in c. 264 BCE and set up over thirty rock edicts throughout India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. These rock edicts promote Dhamma — Buddhist values of compassion, moderation, tolerance and respect for all life, including wildlife. Hunting of certain species of wild animals was banned. Were these generosities prompted by widespread famine, crop failures, over hunting and population increase?
The Dravidian Axiality: Pre-Aryan Harappan inhabitants were dark-skinned people of the proto-Dravidian stock. The drying of the once mighty Saraswati river (now the seasonal Ghaggar–Hakra stream in Pakistan) pushed the Harappan communities to flee the valleys and move on to occupy the Gangetic plains and the Deccan plateau. We find residues of the Harappan social values reflected in the ancient Dravidian culture and literature. Thirukural, the sacred poetry of the Tamil people, composed during 6th Century CE reflects these values and social norms. The poetry is an ethical guide; it exhorts people toward compassionate life, good citizenship, virtuous life, and practice mutual love between husband and wife. These sacred literatures show how societies need to be organized on nonsectarian, secular and ethical values. Our suspicion is that the Dravidian migrants, although initially resisted the Aryan domination, eventually succumbed to it. The Dravidian sacred rituals, iconography, and the popular Hinduism of the countryside is more instinctive of the proto-Shaivism of the IVC. In recent years, the practice of maintaining “sacred groves,” with small patch of forests with strands of trees and shrubs have become widely popular across Tamil Nadu. We witness scores of forest shrines and sanctuaries along highways and byways. The religious taboos surrounding these sacred groves have led to pockets of conservation with abundance of flora and fauna.
Tribal and Indigenous societies: Vast groups of tribal and indigenous societies, predating the advent of Hinduism continue to survive and flourish well into the present times. Axial revolutions seemed to have largely bypassed these societies. Their contributions to the post-axial cults, if any, are mild and nuanced. In the meantime, we are witnessing growing resistances all across the tribal regions against commercial exploitation of forest resources on which the very livelihood of the people depends. We have much to learn from these movements, the world-affirming lifestyles and the ecological sensibilities of our indigenous and tribal communities.
Indian culture is complex, exotic, and enchanting. Nevertheless, the subcontinent suffers a persistent “metaphysical anxiety.” Adherents of the Indian axialities (Indian faiths) suffer variations of what Karl Jaspers calls, the “metaphysical guilt,” the collective guilt. The difference is that in the Indian context, the burden of our social guilt is largely disbursed, borne by individuals than the group. How does one cope with these qualms? The individual can only absolve of his guilt (stain of the soul) through the practice of dharma (performing the sacred duty of his caste), karma (accepting series of future existences and stations in life), and samsara (the sanitization of the atman – the cleansing of the soul through cycles of transmigration), moving toward nirvana, the final release, and in being union with the divine. The process causes immense anxiety of the soul, due in part to uncertainties of one’s own personal salvation/liberation; no concern whatsoever is expressed for the fate of one’s fellow pilgrims or for communal absolution. How could anyone break out of these uncertain cycles of transmigration? Would the “twice-born” ever reach out to embrace his “once-born” neighbor? How do we, in this context, may truly practice nonviolence, extend axial graces to embrace our communities and protect our environment? Given this ethos, will India ever be able to anticipate the “Axial Paradigm shift 2.0” in seizing an ecological commonwealth?
- From “Rejection of the World” to “World Loyalty”
One of the critical components of the MM is the concept of “gestalt.” Religions also trade in meanings, sifting through myriads of gestalts acquired from ecological and social environment, selectively employing them to construct their respective world hypothesis. Every religion and philosophy seek to comprehend the universe and the immediate habitat for positing a raison d’être for human presence and experience within it.
Human engagement with the natural world takes many different forms – from artistic appreciation to ruthless exploitation for economic gains. Some of the vital components that go into the makeup of human-world relations and the concomitant world hypothesis are land, topophilia, biophilia, landscape gestalts, human ecology, and climatic changes and their effects on the environment and human societies. John Hick defines religion “as a self-regulating response of the human animal to the pressures generated by its particular niche within the biological system.” The pressures on human societies and human-world relations exerted by biological niches also shape the worldviews and the archetypes of the collective consciousness.
Religion by nature is selective; it filters multitude of gestalts offered by the natural world, absorbs what fits its scheme while opting for imagined ideas of “misplaced concreteness.” Through the lenses of the MM, any student of history can now easily observe the tell-tale signs of the axial revolution or what we wish to call, “the first axial paradigm shift.” The “world-accepting,” organic-relational existence of the primal world which lasted into the pre-axial age was usurped by the world-rejecting axial mentality of the Meghalayan age. Strangely though, scholars who studied axial phenomenon did not connect the dots, because their approach to the study of the history of religion or hermeneutics of the sacred texts was highly anthropocentric and dualistic. They rarely took the natural world seriously; and much of their works came to a dead-end.
It must be reckoned that tenets like “cosmic homelessness,” “transcendence,” “soteriology” etc. are of recent origin, in comparison to the long-lasting histories of homosapiens on the planet earth. Axial world-hypothesis has been in existence for a mere four thousand years while homosapiens have inhabited the planet as hunters and foragers for over two million years. The dominant disposition of the primal and indigenous societies has been one of being “at home” in the natural world. Primal myths and cults affirmed the providence of nature and integrated human presence and experiences with the processes and cycles of nature.
Alfred North Whitehead called this disposition, “World Loyalty.” If ever there was a phase in human evolution when some modicum of “world loyalty” was extant, it was the primal times when homosapiens lived as hunter-gatherers – the longest-lasting of any structures of human existence. Those primal societies could do so with their implicit trust in the benevolence of the world processes. We may vicariously identify the “world loyalty” of the primal times in contrast to the “world-rejection” of the axial traditions. Whitehead said,
The moment of religious consciousness starts from self-valuation, but it broadens into the concept of the world as a realm of adjusted values, mutually intensifying or mutually destructive. In its solitariness the spirit asks, What, in the way of value, is the attainment of life? And it can find no such value till it has merged its individual claim with that of the objective universe. Religion is world-loyalty. The spirit at once surrenders itself to this universal claim and appropriates it for itself. [Emphasis mine].
“World Loyalty” is constituted by God, Creativity, the Cosmos, and the Present. It is ultimate, irreducible, wholistic, consistent, complex, organic, relational, experiential, and creative. Sadly, from the onset of the Holocene epoch, there has been a steady erosion of the values of “wholeness.” If religion is ultimately about ‘the whole,’ then any lesser loyalties – even commitments to any strains of parochial monotheism – is falsehood or idolatry. The preeminent historian Arnold Toynbee wrote in 1973,
Some of the major maladies of the present-day world – in particular, the recklessly extravagant consumption of nature’s irreplaceable treasures, and the pollution of those of them that man has not already devoured – can be traced back in the last analysis to a religious cause and this cause is the rise of monotheism.
Toynbee was referring here, to a type of traditional monotheisms that is largely negative toward the natural world. If we are to envision a sustainable future for our planet, we would need to re-think the implications of our theistic stances in relation to the wholistic world hypothesis.
- “Meghalayan Covenant”
Conversations on envisioning an ecological commonwealth will undoubtedly call us to dabble not only with the gestalts of our immediate environment, our neighborhood, communities, the natural world, and the planet, but also with the atomic world, celestial spheres, and the cosmos. We, the Whiteheadians call this as the New Cosmology, the Cosmic Immortality! We who live in the space age are one of the propitious people with acumen for comprehending anything and everything in depth and breadth scientifically, philosophically, psychically, rationally as well as religiously. For the first time in human history, we glimpse down at our planet on our desktops via signals beamed from the outer space. It is one thing to stare at the Blue Planet on our monitors, it is yet another thing to gape down at the Planet from space.
Astronaut Michael Collins said,
I remember so vividly what I saw when I looked back at my fragile home – a glistening, inviting beacon, delicate blue and white, a tiny outpost suspended in the black infinity, Earth is to be treasured and nurtured, something precious that must endure.
Indeed, several astronauts who observed the planet Earth from outer space have expressed similar sentiments. Some of them even claim to have had some sort of religious conversion. Indeed the sheer beauty of the planet which sparkles like a blue diamond set against the dark velvety space enchants all of us. Such a treat was not conferred upon our ancestors. For them, especially our primal ancestors, the entry into that “mysterium tremendum” came via the celestial panorama. Ancient desert nomads experienced similar religious ecstasies when they gazed into the night sky. For postmodern humans who are at the cusp of a new space age, entry into such ecstasies occurs from viewing the “Rare Earth” and the cosmos through all means available to us. Whether we gaze into the starry heavens or view the earth through space telescopes, or peek into the subatomic world through Hadron Collider, one thing is certain – that we are beginning to live out our religious or spiritual existence at several frontiers [and dimensions] rather than clinging precariously to our own parochial religious histories and traditions. Increasingly we are made aware that our destinies and that of this planet are contingent upon the forces that are outside the planet and beyond human control, and those that are of our own making. Therefore, our religious imaginations, existence, experiences, and engagements in the world must come to rest on the knowledge we absorb from multi-varied disciplines of science and arts – cosmology, astrobiology, astronomy, and planetary-climatological and environmental histories. “The whole Earth is aesthetically stimulating,” wrote Holmes Rolston, “philosophically challenging, and ethically disturbing.”
The need of the hour is for humanity to be open to the fresh visitations of cosmic, planetary, and ecological gestalts that enchant the world of nature anew and aid humanity to envision and nurture the emergence of a new paradigm – a new faith which we have christened here as the “Meghalayan Faith.” Meghalayan Faith is universal, transaxial, transecumenical, transCatholic. There is no one prophet, or messiah, or redeemer. This ancient new faith warrants a sustainable future – an “ecological commonwealth” for all living beings — animate or inanimate, and the planet. It will revolutionize our understanding of the phenomenon of religion altogether, not to mention the study of the history of religion. We will also find ways to cleanse every Living World Religion of its world-negating loyalties formed during the seminal days of the axial revolution. If the underlying paradigms of misplaced concreteness of our faiths and practices change for the better, they would transform our hearts and minds triggering seismic shifts of our social, political, and religious thoughts, ideologies, and institutions, moving us toward anticipating and embracing this universal faith.
This does not mean that I give up my Protestant faith in exchange for this new universal faith. No! For all practical purposes, my faith is personal, foundational, shaped on the anvils of my solitariness. As Whitehead says, “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” I subject my faith to the service of the emerging new world-loyalty, in the witness of the Meghalayan Faith. I have been transformed by the call of this new faith. Every one of us must cherish our own faith; but when we come together as communities to relate to the natural world, the planet and beyond, we need a faith that transcends our cultural, national, ethnic, linguistic histories and traditions. Every axial faith has been constricted by its own cultural and historical singularity, and handicaps. We must repent of our parochial loyalties and pledge our allegiance to this emerging new universal faith, the Meghalayan Faith.
The time is ripe for another major paradigm shift – the Axial Revolution 2.0 — to be effectuated in the religious life of global human communities. We, the postmodern Meghalayans therefore call for a covenant with the Meghalayan Faith – a commitment to a new world-loyalty in sizing an ecological commonwealth. To this end, we call all those who wish to be radicalized by the new faith to come together to draft and frame the “Meghalayan Covenant” that envisions an “ecological commonwealth,” and go out to witness to its gospel. What comes of this endeavor could be exhilarating, adventurous, audacious, subversive, and ethically challenging.
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Meghalayan Covenant #18