World Religions in Education Shap Journal 2000 2001



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World Religions in Education
Shap Journal 2000 – 2001
Time

Rasamandala (das)


I have always been fascinated by the infinite. My

twin brother and I, as children of seven or eight,

used to stand in our back garden gazing at the

clear night sky. On those balmy autumn evenings

we'd pose the perennial question (asked by all of us at

some time), 'Just where does the universe end?' We'd

conceive of a fence or brick wall, beyond the visible

stars. In our childish imaginations, we'd peep 'next

door', only to encounter further space, receding

relentlessly. We concluded that, in our cosmic suburbia,

there must also be a 'next-door-but-one', and another

vast space next to that, and so on, and so on, without

end. Ah, how our minds boggled, unshackled by

adulthood! No stuffy, dry, armchair philosophers we -

no, we were feeling eternity. In vain we tried to grasp it,

but as it repeatedly slipped through our conceptual

fingers, we knew - with certainty - of its existence.
And what of time (as opposed to space)? Dared we to

look beyond these boundaries? At that age, death seemed

so remote. Perhaps for this reason, we approached the

matter from the opposite direction, talking of 'those

people who've not yet been born' (for whom we felt a

vague compassion). In retrospect, it was as if we felt

that people existed before their birth - a perception that

heralded my later belief in reincarnation.


Time passed (as it tends to do). I left the shelter of the

family home for the less defined boundaries of boarding

school. I did well academically and on one 'speech day',

received three prizes. Each was a book, previously

selected at a visit to the local town. I was particularly

looking forward to one hastily chosen volume called,

quite simply - and enigmatically - 'Time'.
How disappointed I was! For, it talked not of time itself

but of striped candles and floating pots with holes in

them, and of rocker-arms and pendulums. Previously,

I'd even tried to define time and to separate it (quite

unsuccessfully) from the concept of space. And now, my

new book threw no light on the matter. I read instead

my other books - on fishing.
At school, the confined winter evenings would be

brightened by the occasional film (for then we had no

TV). I recall watching 'The Incredible Shrinking Man'.

He encountered a cloud of insecticide - not even of the

GM type - and began to 'grow smaller'. He fought a

heroic battle against the previously cute Tiddles (the

family cat) and later, even more size-disadvantaged,

wielded a needle against a hungry spider. Gripping

stuff! Not so much that it rivalled 'Gladiator', but in

that it confronted us with the infinite, the infinitesimal,

and eternity; and how consciousness can exist (as, say,

for the spider) on so many different levels and

dimensions.
Fortunately, during adolescence, my body continued to

grow. I entered university, read mathematics and

became embroiled in the more intellectual aspects of the

hippie counter-culture. I preferred philosophy to maths

and soon found myself a practising member of the Hare

Krishna Movement - a branch of devotional Hinduism

hailing from Bengal. Even my previously outrageous

dress (such as my yellow velvet flares) seemed mild

when compared to my newly donned saffron robes.
Now, nearly thirty years later, I wear Pringle sweaters,

live in Oxford and listen to Radio Four. However, despite

my more conservative appearance, I still consider that

my worldview is somewhat radical, more akin to the

Hindu perspective than that generally held in the West.
For example, let's return to our theme of 'time'. Have

you ever noticed how on radio and TV shows, academic

and social experts repeatedly refer to our primitive past?

Darwin can explain everything from our eating and

mating habits to our religious rituals. It seems that

evolution (through its own influence, perhaps) has

secured its survival by becoming an undeniable and

unquestionable truth. We could call it "a kind of sacred

cow" (without wanting to disrespect the latter).

Darwin's theory and its corollaries (which often relegate

Hinduism to a feature of our tribal past), demonstrate a

belief that time is limited, linear, and progressive. Time

started at some specific point, with singularities. Big

bangs and so forth; subsequently life moves constantly

forward - from chemicals to monkey, from monkey to

man, and from man to the stars. The underlying

assumption is that we have never been so advanced as

now (which, by chance, happens to be the time that I

am living). I propose that this possibly flawed concept

of time is central in underpinning our largely

materialistic way of life.
Consider, for example, that wonderful phase 'sustainable

economic growth' (it almost sounds religious, doesn't

it?). Can economic growth really continue without end?

Can we move forever from one polarity towards the

other without a change in direction? (Socrates thought

not, and used this very argument to support

reincarnation, holding that in the brief respite between

bodies, we rapidly become sixty, seventy or eighty years

younger).
I recall first hearing of the Pagan festival of Saturnalia,

later replaced by Christmas. On hearing of the apparent

meaning behind these festivities, I remember well the

impressions I received. I brought to mind our forefathers

many moons ago. It is just before the very first festival,

with the nights growing relentlessly longer - and the

days dangerously decreasing. Anticipating the imminent

demise of daytime, the first astronomers mop the beads

of sweat from their receding brows. Eventually,

calculations reveal that the process has stopped - and

even reversed! Relieved by their miraculous redemption

from eternal darkness, our distant ancestors, whooping

with joy, throw their clubs in the air and commence

celebrations - probably by getting blind drunk (for keep

in mind they were primitive.)
Now, anticipating sustainable economic growth is no

less foolish than considering that the nights would

forever continue to grow longer. Time is naturally

cyclical, as evinced by the days and months, by our very

breathing and by the rotating seasons. The Vedic (or

Hindu) scriptures talk of greater periods from twelve

years, through sixty, up to many millions. From the

scientific perspective, we learned as children, of the ice

age, and of the polar caps that expand and contract,

repeatedly, cyclically. And eternally?


Well, we may conclude - quite reasonably - that

everything will perish. The atom, this body, this earth,

this universe, everything. And yet the Vedas refute the

idea of a final end to time. As one door closes, another

must open. The Bhagavad-gita states, 'For one who is

born, death is certain, and for one who is dead, birth is

certain.' Similarly after the demise of this material

cosmos, another is created. In this way, there is an

everlasting cycle of creation, sustenance and

destruction, represented by the three functional deities

of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Not only do Hindus hold time to be eternal and cyclical,

as already discussed, but it is apparently degenerative, in

the same way that we experience getting older, and not

usually the opposite. Such a worldview not only

validates the idea of a far-distant glorious past (as

expressed, for example, in the Ramayana and

Mahabharata), but challenges the concept of uni-

directional progress. Naturally, such analysis of

progress depends upon our criteria, themselves

determined by our specific values and mind-set. These

days, many non-Hindus are also questioning our values

based on technological progress; for example, whether

our decisions on GM food be based wholly or largely on

economic concerns, or equally (or even predominantly)

on other criteria. Hindus hold that ultimate priority

must be given to spiritual values. They also believe that

this current age, the last in the perpetual cycle of four,

is the darkest, typified by quarrel, hypocrisy and

degeneration. Thus claims of progress may be treated

with some scepticism. For example, scripture tells us

that our present life began nine months before our birth,

at the time of conception. Consequently, if we take into

account the current average rate of abortions, our

average life expectancy is considerably reduced - not an

unreasonable argument from the Vedic perspective! If

we apply these criteria, we could conclude that human

society is devolving and that as human beings we are

becoming increasingly retarded. Time, therefore, may

be considered not only eternal and cyclical, but also

degenerative.


Most of us are aware of how we cannot legitimately

judge another's religion through our own limited eyes,

or against our own specific values. How relevant this is

to the RE world! We all need, theoretically at least, to

understand the adherents' predominant world-view, for

then their ideas and practices are comprehensible. We

may appreciate also the differences between the various

religious traditions. For example, within an eternal,

non-linear time frame, ideas of the exclusivity of one

religious teacher, or one tradition, are hard to

accommodate. Terms like 'only', 'last' or 'best' may be

valid within specific boundaries, but lose all meaning in

the context of eternity.
And yet, from the Vedic (or Hindu) perspective, it is not

sufficient to have everyone neatly allocated to their

temporary boxes - Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc. (and

acknowledging how great we all are.). For behind the

plurality of religious expression stands a commonality.

Traditions rooted in time and space, like everything else,

will come, stay for some time, and vanish from our

sight. Yet something endures, and that may be called

religion (singular) or "spirituality". If we talk of belief,

opinion or world-view, we must accept diversity. If we

talk of reality, then there is but one, perceived differently

through our various imperfect mind-sets. The search

must therefore be not for merely belief, but for truth and

for a world-view that matches reality. In so doing, we

must look not only out to the external world, but

inwardly also - to our vast inner and often-uncharted

inner space - to be introspective and to reassess, "Am I

seeing things correctly? Or is my lens distorted?"


I propose - and I am purposefully being confrontational

here - that the concept of linear time does not conform

to reality. But please don't accept blindly what I say -

(I'm confident that you won't anyway). Ask your pupils,

"Where and when did the universe begin? When will it

end? And what thereafter?" Draw from their experience,

before they too become constrained by belief, bias and

taboo, and the idea that I belong to a specific family,

country, or planet; or to a particular religion; or to a

microscopic moment in cosmic time.


One disadvantage of the faulty concept of linear time is

the idea that I can arrive, and simply put my feet up.

Worse still is the notion, "I have arrived". If we think,

"I am a teacher", then we are shackled by our own

misconceptions. On the other hand, if we consider that

"I am a fellow learner on the perpetual search for truth

and self-improvement", then we stand on the shore of

eternity. As someone so nicely wrote, "No one can

ascertain where the teacher's influence stops". Next

time you have the luxury of some free time, perhaps



spend a few minutes gazing at the stars.


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