Waiting for the End of the World: René Guénon and the Kali Yuga
—Currently the fear – or hope – of the closing of the age pervades the air like a thick vapour. Sometimes this end is envisaged as an environmental calamity, sometimes as the second coming of Christ, sometimes as the return of the space brothers to claim their own.
Figures including Jose Argüelles, the prophet of the 1987 Harmonic Convergence; Terence McKenna, the late pope of psychedelia; and the channelled entity known as Kryon have fastened onto 2012 as the turning point.
A less well known, though in a way equally influential, figure was the French esoteric philosopher René Guénon, whose writings often speak of the end of a cycle that he equated with the Kali Yuga, the “dark age” of Hindu cosmology. While he did not point to 2012 or any other specific date, his ideas do resonate with some of these expectations for the dawning age to come.
Born in Blois, France, in 1886, Guénon had a conventional education in mathematics. In his youth he began to explore occult currents in Paris and was initiated into esoteric groups connected with Freemasonry, Martinism, Taoism, and Advaita Vedanta. In 1911, he was initiated into a Sufi tariqah (order) under the leadership of an Egyptian sheikh, Abder Rahman Elish El-Kebir. In 1930, he moved to Egypt, where he converted to Islam and lived until his death in 1951. In the meantime, he published a wide range of books, articles, and reviews espousing what he said was the universal and primordial tradition underlying all religions.
For Guénon, tradition is the ne plus ultra of human life. He conceives of tradition as a hierarchy: higher knowledge emanates from a now-hidden spiritual centre to all of humankind through the “orthodox” traditions, among whom he includes (with many caveats and qualifications) the great world religions as well as certain other lines such as Freemasonry. Or to put it more accurately, this tradition is preserved in certain initiatic lineages that lie embedded in these faiths, such as the Kabbalah in Judaism, Taoism in Chinese religion, and Sufism in Islam. The esoteric dimension of Christianity had, he believed, practically disappeared by the late Middle Ages and was now preserved (if at all) by small initiatic groups that he apparently regarded as inaccessible. Indeed Guénon’s conversion to Islam was motivated in part by his belief that these Western lineages had almost completely died out by the twentieth century.
In fact, according to Guénon, this transmission of traditional knowledge – the “doctrine,” as he often styles it – has become almost completely blocked in our era. This, he argued, is the result of a long cosmic cycle, which is called a Manvantara in Hindu cosmology, and which is divided into four yugas or ages: the Satya Yuga, the Treta Yuga, the Dvapara Yuga, and the present Kali Yuga. The problems and anxieties of the current era are the result of this age. It’s worth exploring why he believed this and what he thought it meant.
The Reign of Quantity & the End of an AgeGuénon was first and foremost a metaphysician – indeed, he was one of the greatest and most lucid thinkers who have delved into this arcane subject. And for him, metaphysics concerns universal principles; the details of circumstance are of value only insofar as they illustrate these. At the beginning of his best-known work, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (first published in 1945), he writes that “considerations of that order” – namely, factual details – “are worth nothing except in so far as they represent an application of principles to certain particular circumstances.”1
Thus Guénon said that he not a prophet in any conventional sense of the term. He was not a visionary and believed that the visionary prophecy of the current age was nothing more than a cloud of lies emitted by sinister “counterinitiatic” forces. If he spoke of an outlook that made it possible “to foresee, at least in its broad outlines, what will be the shape of a future world,” he insisted that “previsions of this kind have not really any ‘divinatory’ character whatever, but are founded entirely on… the qualitative determinations of time.”2
The use of the word “qualitative” may seem peculiar here, but for Guénon, the polarity between “quality” and “quantity” was central to understanding the dynamics at play. In his 1931 book The Symbolism of the Cross, he depicted reality in the form of a three-dimensional cross – one that has the dimension of height and depth in addition to the familiar two of length and breadth. At the top of this cross is what he called “absolute quality” – an abstract state that is impossible for us to conceive, because it has no element of quantity whatsoever. (An interesting mind game: try to conceive of a universe in which there is no number or quantity of any sort. It’s almost impossible to do.) At the bottom of this cross is “absolute quantity” – another abstract state that is impossible to conceive. (Again, try to imagine a universe where there is only number, in which there is nothing that has any particular qualities such as colour, shape, or anything else of the kind.)
Hence it’s not possible in this relative level of existence to reach the absolute end of each pole, but in a given age one of the two will be more pronounced and the other less pronounced to an exactly inverse degree. According to Guénon, the Manvantara proceeds in an ages-long cycle from an era where quality is emphasised – the legendary time known to the Hindus as the Satya Yuga and to the ancient Greeks as the Golden Age – to one in which quantity comes more and more to dominate. This is our present era, the Kali Yuga or what the Greeks called the Iron Age. That’s why Guénon speaks of the present era as one of “the reign of quantity.” He goes on to argue that all the primary characteristics of our time are the result of this reign of quantity.
Guénon produces modern philosophy and science as evidence for his argument. Modern Western philosophy to all intents and purposes begins with René Descartes (1596-1650), who divided the world into what he called res cogitans (literally, “the thing that thinks”) and res extensa (literally, “the extended thing”). That is to say, the world is divided into that which experiences –res cogitans – and that which is experienced: res extensa. According to Descartes (at least as interpreted by Guénon), everything material is characterised by – and only by – extension, by what can be measured and quantified.
While this all may sound extremely abstract, Guénon argued – rightly, I believe – that this attitude has profoundly shaped Western thought over the last few centuries. Essentially, he is saying, materialistic science focuses exclusively on quantity: “The more specifically ‘scientific’ point of view as the modern world understands it… seeks to bring everything down to quantity, anything that cannot be so treated is not taken into account, and is regarded as more or less non-existent.”3 Unfortunately, as Guénon goes on to say, this creates any number of logical contradictions. Science conceived purely in terms of quantity argues that the same causes produce the same effects, but as Guénon points out, this is absurd, as no two events are ever completely identical. He also criticises “the delusion which consists in thinking a large number of facts can be of use in itself as ‘proof’ of a theory; …even a little thought will make it evident that facts of the same kind are always indefinite in multitude, so that they can never all be taken into account.”4
This is precisely the problem that contemporary philosophers call “the justification of induction.” You base a theory on any number of similar events that have happened in the past; but how can you account for the ones that you have not seen, and how can you be sure that future facts will yield the same results? Bertrand Russell put the point wittily when he wrote, “The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.”5 The notion of causation is at least as problematic.6 These facts place a ceiling on the degree to which science can understand and explain the universe.
The Real Meaning of “Value”As even this short discussion suggests, Guénon raises profound philosophical issues, and contemporary thought has not done a terribly impressive job of coping with them. But, he contends, the problems go further still. In a chapter of The Reign of Quantity entitled “The Degeneration of Coinage,” he explores the economic aspects of the issue. At first glance, one might think that nothing was more purely quantitative than money. But that, Guénon argues, is an illusion fostered by the degenerate age we live in: “The ‘economic’ point of view…, and the exclusively quantitative conception of money which is inherent in it, are but the products of a degeneration which is on the whole fairly recent,… money possessed at its origin, and retained for a long time, quite a different character and a truly qualitative value, remarkable as this may appear to the majority of our contemporaries.”7
In traditional societies, Guénon says, money had a sacred character. Not only were the coins stamped with the images of gods and other sacred symbols, but the currency was controlled by the spiritual authorities rather than by the secular powers. Money was meant to be a reminder of “value” in the qualitative as well as the quantitative sense. Today, however, “nobody is able any longer to conceive that money can represent anything other than a simple quantity.”8 Even such words as “value” and “estimate” have been deprived of their qualitative character, and today, when we ask how much a man is worth, we are almost always thinking in terms of cash and equities rather than moral or spiritual calibre.
This quantitative approach extends to every object we use. “In a traditional civilisation,” Guénon writes, “each object was at the same time as perfectly fitted as possible for the use for which it was immediately destined and also made so that it could at any moment, and owing to the very fact that real use was being made of it (instead of its being treated more or less as a dead thing as the moderns do with everything that they consider to be a ‘work of art’), serve as a ‘support’ for meditation,… thus helping everyone to elevate himself to a superior state according to the measure of his capacities.”9 One obvious example are the tools of Masonry, such as the square, compass, and plumb line, each of which was intended to convey a spiritual and ethical meaning in the days when Masonry was limited to practicing stonemasons. Manufactured goods have no such meaning or value.
It is not possible here to go further into Guénon’s critique, but even this short discussion reveals that his insights into the woes of the current era were remarkably perceptive and prescient. In The Crisis of the Modern World, published in 1927, he said, “It is… to be expected that discoveries, or rather mechanical and industrial inventions, will go on developing and multiplying more and more rapidly until the end of the present age; and who knows if, given the dangers of destruction they bear in themselves, they will not be one of the chief agents in the ultimate catastrophe, if things reach a point at which this cannot be averted?”10
Guénon’s charge that the modern world has no use for anything apart from quantity could be substantiated by cases from every conceivable source. Writing about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, in early July 2010 a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal reported, “BP PLC is pushing to fix its runaway Gulf oil well by July 27, possibly weeks before the deadline the company is discussing publicly, in a bid to show investors it has capped its ballooning financial liabilities.” Why did BP choose this date? “The July 27 target date is the day the company is expected to report second-quarter earnings and speak to investors.”11 In other words, the fact that the BP spill, one of the greatest environmental disasters in history, fouled a large portion of the Gulf of Mexico, killed innumerable creatures, and devastated the lives of people all along the Gulf Coast was not reason enough for the company to hurry: it needed a second-quarter earnings report to goad itself into action. Nothing could illustrate the reign of quantity more clearly.
The Kali YugaAll this said, when it comes to Guénon’s discussion of the Kali Yuga as a traditional Hindu doctrine, he stands on much shakier ground. He says that the Kali Yuga began some six thousand years ago.12 He also says this era is close to its end. In The Crisis of the Modern World he writes: “We have in fact entered upon the last phase of the Kali-Yuga, the darkest period of the ‘dark age’, the state of dissolution from which it is impossible to emerge otherwise than by a cataclysm.”13
Not all traditional sources agree about this point. The Hindu sage Sri Yukteswar, best-known as the master of the celebrated yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, discusses the matter in his book The Holy Science. Sri Yukteswar says that the Kali Yuga is actually over, although this has not been recognised even by many Hindu authorities. Ironically in light of Guénon’s claims, it was the very occlusion of the sacred centre that made it impossible to calculate the yugas correctly.
Traditional dating for the beginning of the Kali Yuga starts from the death of Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, at the end of the war between the Pandava and Kaurava clans chronicled in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. Some sources date this to 3012 BCE, others to 1400 BCE.14 As the Kali Yuga began to dawn, Yudhisthira – the victorious Pandava king – gave his throne over to his grandson, Raja Parikshit. “Together with all the wise men of his court,” according to Sri Yukteswar, Yudhisthira “retired to the Himalayan Mountains, the paradise of the world. Thus there was none in the court of Raja Parikshit who could understand the principle of correctly calculating the ages of the several Yugas.”15
Sri Yukteswar maintains that the Kali Yuga actually ended in 1699 CE. While his views may have been imbued with a belief in progress by his own British education and do not necessarily correspond with those of the majority of Hindus,16 at any rate his claim to being a source of “traditional” knowledge is much higher than Guénon’s. David Frawley, an American Vedic astrologer, agrees with Sri Yukteswar in saying that the Kali Yuga ended in 1699.17 In any event, the dating is far from clear-cut. In fact, many traditional sources reckon on a much larger scale for the duration of the Kali Yuga, placing its length at 432,000 years. If this were the case, it would render any imminent end to this epoch highly improbable.18
One of the sources that come closest to Guénon’s view of the Kali Yuga is H.P. Blavatsky (1831-91), founder of the Theosophical Society. In her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky writes, “The Kali-yuga reigns now supreme in India, and it seems to coincide with the Western age.”19 Blavatsky, writing around 1888, dates the beginning of this epoch to “4,989 years ago” – close to the traditional date of 3012 BCE – and places its end roughly at the close of the nineteenth century: “We have not long to wait, and many of us will witness the Dawn of the New Cycle.”20
This resemblance is peculiar, because Guénon loathed Blavatsky and Theosophy and criticised them in his first published book,Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion. For Guénon, Theosophy was the ultimate counterinitiatic force, distorting and perverting the truth of traditional knowledge. He especially detested the Theosophical doctrine of evolution, which teaches that each living thing – indeed each atom – is progressing on a cycle of devolution into matter followed by evolution into higher consciousness. The Theosophical view is similar to Guénon’s in saying that the present era is the one in which materiality is most dominant and that it is coming to an end, but it generally portrays the progress of the human race in far more positive terms than Guénon.
The connections between Guénon and Theosophy are intricate. One of his first spiritual teachers was the occultist Papus (Gérard Encausse), who was head of the French branch of the Theosophical Society, and the scholar Mark Sedgwick, whose book Against the Modern World is the best introduction to the impact of Guénon’s thought, sees Theosophy as one of Guénon’s chief influences.21 While it is impossible to go into this controversy here, it is at least clear that both Blavatsky and Guénon believed the end of the Kali Yuga was at hand. Another central figure in the esotericism of the twentieth century, C.G. Jung, did not deal at length with the Kali Yuga, but in Aeon, his compendious analysis of the symbolism of the astrological ages, he suggests 1997 as the starting point of the New Age, for intricate astronomical reasons.22
Waiting for the End of the WorldAre we, then, at the end of a cycle? In one sense, yes, of course we are. There are many cycles in nature: every year, every day, is the end of a cycle. But whether we are at the end of the Kali Yuga is, at the very least, moot. My own impression is that the more genuinely traditional Hindus tend to see the Kali Yuga in terms of the much longer time frame of 432,000 years. While Guénon reviled the West and its attempt to erode the traditional values of Asian civilisation, ironically his view that the end is at hand comes far closer to the spirit of Christianity, the ultimate Western religion – which for 2,000 years has been predicting the imminent return of Jesus – than it does to Hindu thought.
What does this mean in practical terms for us today? Waiting for the end of the world (or of the age) is a kind of narcotic. It enables the human mind to accommodate its own notion of cosmic justice to the realities at hand (because the wicked – who are always, of course, the others – will be brought low, while the good – oneself and whatever group one identifies with – will be exalted). It also serves as what psychology calls a displacement of the fear of death. For each of us individually, the end of the world is certainly coming, in a few decades at the very longest. But human beings dislike contemplating the certainty of death. They find it easier to deal with it by casting it in the remote and highly improbable form of whatever cataclysm happens to suit the fashions of the moment. (For a fuller treatment of this dynamic, see the chapter “Nostradamus and the Uses of Prophecy” in my book The Essential Nostradamus.)
Unfortunately, we cannot stand around waiting for the end of the world to solve our problems for us. If we genuinely are at a threshold of a new era, we will be able to cross it only if we discard the contrived apocalypticism that suffuses mass culture and to which Guénon, as powerful a thinker as he was, was not immune.
Nevertheless, Guénon’s claim that we are living under the reign of quantity is hard to refute. One has only to read prominent journals such as The Wall Street Journal and The Economist to see that the real protagonist in all their stories is money – money in the abstract, as a kind of hypostatised entity that stipulates all value and dictates all morality. What is good, we are being told, is what is good for money. Whether or not the Kali Yuga is about to end, we can bring the end of the reign of quantity a few steps closer by looking into ourselves and making sure that the values by which we guide our lives are more than merely economic ones.
Footnotes1. René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, trans. Lord Northbourne (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1972), 7.
2. Guénon, The Reign of Quantity, 57.
3. Guénon, The Reign of Quantity, 85.
4. Guénon, The Reign of Quantity, 87.
5. Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2002 , 42.
6. For a more complete discussion of these issues, see my book The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe (Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2009), chs. 4 and 5.
7. Guénon, The Reign of Quantity, 133.
8. Guénon, The Reign of Quantity, 136.
9. Guénon, The Reign of Quantity, 137.
10. René Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World, trans. Arthur Osborne et al. (Ghent, N.Y.: Sophia Perennis et Universalis, 1996), 39.
11. Monica Langley, “BP Sets New Spill Target,” The Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2010, A1.
12. René Guénon, The King of the World, trans. Henry D. Fohr (Hillsdale, N.Y.: Sophia Perennis et Universalis, 2001), 49.
13. Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World, 17.
14. See Klaus R. Kostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism, 3d ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 97.
15. Jnananavatar Swami Sri Yukteswar, The Holy Science (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1990), 16-17.
16. See the forthcoming work by Joscelyn Godwin, Atlantis of the Occultists and the Cycles of Time.
17. David Frawley, Astrology of the Seers: A Guide to Vedic/Hindu Astrology (Twin Lakes, Wis.: Lotus, 2000), 36-39.
18. For a helpful summary of the various views, see Joseph Morales, “The Hindu Theory of World Cycles in the Light of Modern Science”; http://baharna.com/karma/yuga.htm (accessed January 14, 2010).
19. H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine (Wheaton, Ill.: Quest, 1993 ), 1:377.
20. Blavatsky, Secret Doctrine, 1:xliii-xliv.
21. Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 40-44.
22. C.G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton/Bollingen, 1959), 94.
RICHARD SMOLEY’s latest book is The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe. His other works include Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney); Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; andConscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity. He is editor of Quest Books and executive editor ofQuest magazine, both published by the Theosophical Society in America. His website iswww.innerchristianity.com.The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 122 (Sep-Oct 2010).