In all the units of time I have learnt to measure, time is never alive. A minute, second, year, is always a function of counting, a container to organize stuff, to organize life.
Categories like millennia, era, ages, try to say something about culture, and the cultural machination of the time—the dark ages, the Muslim golden age, the age of enlightened, the new millennia, modernity, ultimately they are retroactive descriptions of historical memory.
They are underpinned by a linear recollection of time. That everything that is, has been, or will be, will come, and will pass in a beginning, middle, and end. It feels intuitive, like something I have always known. I know now, this is simply one idea in a universe of ideas.
This linear reading of time engenders a fatalistic one. Since the creation of the universe, all events are not necessarily predetermined, but definitely inevitable—even the best and worst moments of your life, and human history.
To say life is predestined will mean there is a great designer who knows the end from the beginning and sets off a series of events that generate known outcomes. To say they are inevitable means there is no designer, but because the first action happened, then every other action simply happens in sequence from a beginning to a middle and to an end. This idea is just that, an idea. It is merely cultural; temporal, not eternal; particular, not universal.
Hinduism presents another idea that describes the patterns that order our lives, human and universal history. Omenala ndi igbo (the ways of the Igbo) presents another.
The Hindu Dharma espouses that the process of creation moves in cycles and that each cycle has four great epochs of time, namely Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapar Yuga and Kali Yuga. This process is never-ending, it “begins to end and ends to begin”.
The Satya Yuga or the ‘age of piety’ in Hinduism, is the first of the four yugas, and is known as the age (era) of Truth. This age lasts about 1,728,000 years. In this age, humanity is governed by gods, and every act happens in the purest form and intrinsic goodness reigns supreme. The Dharma, which symbolises morality and is represented by a bull, stands on all four legs during this period. Later on in the Treta Yuga, it would become three, followed by two in the Dvapara Yuga. Currently, in the immoral age of Kali Yuga, it stands on one leg.
In this worldview, time is fatalistic but non-linear, and maybe most interestingly, time is alive. The yuga which can last up to a thousand years predetermines, and does not just describe the activities that happen within it. So it was not enough that cultures go through dark ages, but they experience these ages because they are in Kali Yuga, and in this period, immorality and degradation is expected and part of a cycle of time and creation.
Similar to the Hindus, the Igbos recognize ages called Uga; Uga Aka, Uga Chi, Uga Anwu and Uga Azi. Each age is associated with waves of reincarnated spirits. The four Uga are further grouped into two ages called Mgbe Ndi Mbu and Mbe Ndi Ushi Egede (The age of the first ancestors and Since Death came into the world).
Uga Aka was populated by Umu aka – people of intellect and universal mind. They are often referred to as Ndi Isi Nka – people who never died or the first one’s/ elders. This was an era before death arrived in this world, and those who live in this era are immortal. In this age, God, principalities, angels, animals and humans all spoke a singular language and communicated with each other. This was an age where all existence shared ucheChukwu – the universal consciousness of God.
Uga Chi was the period death entered into the world and the connection between God and humans began to fade. God began to speak to humans through messengers, and laws were introduced to govern humans. This period also saw the death of the first man Alili.
Uga Anwu is the world age when Umu Anwu – children of the sun/ children of the God of light – abound in the world. Umu Anwu include Umu Agwu (Agwu’s Children) and Umu Aro (children of the first son of Aro) and the technologists and blacksmiths. This was where death and illness became permanent on earth. It was also the period that saw the creation of the Dibia, and they manifested great miracles like shapeshifting, astral travel, and telepathic communication.
The Uga Azi—which is the age we are in—is a period of ignorance. Spiritual unintelligence, destruction and violent forces govern the earth. It is a period of total unrest and upheaval. A respectable Igbo scholar explained to me once, that the reason Dibias of the past refused to pass down knowledge of the Uga Anwu age, is because they believed the world was entering an age of corruption, and it was better to die with their knowledge than to have it be corrupted.
How is it that two traditions separated by thousands of miles, several oceans and distinct social-political structures, belief systems and cultural institutions share similar worldviews ? The characters are different, but the principle is fundamentally the same. Time is a moral agent, and the age of the universe corresponds directly to the behaviour of humans. In the early stages, God is present, and the world is whole, and in the later stages, God is absent, and decay is inevitable.
They suggest that evil is not a problem, and it is not one solely caused by people, but exits as a result of the age we are in. According to this philosophical frame, colonization, slavery and other world atrocities were not just a product of evil people and their evil actions, but a product of the animated consciousness of evil time.
How is it that both Hindu and Igbo philosophies also correspond to that found in Abraham traditions, which also allude to the presence of God walking with humans in a perfect peaceful land, and through time, God departs from humans and humanities continues in moral decay? Why do they all think God was with humanity, and God departed. There is more to discover in a meta comparison from multiple religious traditions.
Where does evil come from?
Maybe this is where the most interesting differences are in these philosophies. For the Igbo, if the Uga Aka was a period of universal goodness, and for the Hindu the Satya Yuga was a time of universal goodness, it begs the question, how does evil emerge from goodness ? where does evil come from?
One way of thinking is we always carry the propensity for evil with us. Even the most righteous one, in the most righteous time, is still capable of committing righteous evil. Good people often rationalize their violent actions with moral underpinnings. And even in pursuing righteous means, with scrupulous intentions, it does not negate the possibility of causing harm. There may be negative consequences of righteous actions, hence, evil or death emerge out of goodness.
For the Hindus, the forces of creation, preservation and destruction are always present and are embodied within Brahman. Epics of the Satya Yuga discuss war and the duty of one’s caste. Let’s note here that utopia for a victorious war God, is not utopia to their victim. Utopia for a high caste individual is not for a low caste individual- especially when they exist in the same age.
As the ages pass, these social hierarchies become stepping stones for upheaval that engender the next age. It is useful to note that the Hindu ranking system is present even in the age of piety and morality. What is considered moral is not universal or eternal, but temporary. Is it in this shifting of the mind that decay becomes prevalent? And is it possible that even in later ages, where morality is less attainable, its presence may be more potent.
I must conclude then, that no Uga or Yuga is fixed. Each age must surely contain elements of each other and this is what allows the time cycle to continue. Decay, destruction, and righteousness must be found in different quantities in different ages, and shift in proportion through the ages.
You have to know the time you are in.
Time enables and restricts human behaviour. You have to know what time you are in. Everything is always possible, but not possible always. The moral predispositions of a people in any era predetermine what is perceived to be permissible and within the realm of possibility. Morality itself is not fixed but always negotiated in relation to what came before it.
History is a series of moral evolutions, expansions and contractions, and shifting realities. It is also non-linear. There are large cycles, and smaller cycles, all interlocking, overlapping, and separating. It is humans, through our attempts to be good that create evil, and through our failure for perfect violence, create good. These cycles create patterns that ripple across millennia.
I feel the world shifting under my feet. The things that were not possible yesterday, are now conceivable. I think the future has come back to give us a glimpse of it. The Igbos say, when a thing is looking for a way to manifest, it will manifest. I look at the screen and I watch my people die by the hands of small men. And I pray to time, “how long must this continue.” I travel with my chi out of my body and I hold the earth as it tremors. I travel with the tremor from Gambia to Khartoum, Bridgetown to Washington, Lagos to Kampala, Kingston to Victoria, Windhoek to Banjul and I feel the energy of youth restless to reclaim lost time. I feel a coming of age, a curiosity of self, and a knowing.
The future is speaking to us, calling us to it. It is promised, but it is not guaranteed. The tremor reminds me, time waits for itself. And even though we journey across Yugas and Ugas, for millions of years, tomorrow still matters. Although the universe has its cycles, our days, our months, and our years also have cycles, and these matter too. So we must prepare. For when the tradewinds blow in the way of freedom, you must be ready to sail them, because they may not come back for another thousand years.
Dedicated to Ryan, Preethi, and Tuba.
Thank you to Shruti and Oluchi Ibe.