Is time a wheel or a stick?

The following column was published in The Daily Pioneer on March 9, 2011.

Words carry weight. More than being just arbitrary symbols representing sounds and concepts, over time, words acquire a flavour of their own. They stir passions, instil sentiments, and direct the course of civilisations.

I want to talk about two words in particular -- forward and backward -- and the ideas and values they represent along with how they affect our way of thinking. Forward and backward are loaded words and they come with some heavy implications. Upon comparing them we find that there seems to be something inherently good about the future and something very shameful about the past. The future is generally seen as a place we ought to aspire for -- a golden time of prosperity and happiness where today's problems would cease to exist. The past is perceived to be the source of all the troubles we have right now -- it is a dark place populated only by the mistakes we made when we didn't know any better.

To be sure, it is just a matter of how much effort we put into our culture-consciousness. Given the nature of time, one can't help going towards the future. Being in touch with the past, on the other hand, requires effort.

But this seemingly simple dichotomy -- at a deeper level -- may be seen as the essence of the difference between the world views of the East and the West.

The Western view of history is linear -- events that are fixed in an age gone by, never to return. This past is what has lead to the present and the present, in its turn, will lead towards tomorrow. This view of the world sees time as linear -- as a sequence of events with a distinct beginning, a rather clean progression, and an ultimate end. This view may be seen as being supported by both Western religion and science.

Western religion, mostly Christianity, is based on distinctive historicity -- a set of beliefs that root from an epochal event in the past (Christ's sacrifice) that set the ground for the coming of an epochal event in the future (the day of judgement). There is no deviating from this linear world view. It is, as they say, set in stone.

The science of the West, too, is a progressive phenomenon. Knowledge is seen as a constantly improving value. What we knew about the universe in the past was imperfect (and therefore inferior) compared to what we know today. Similarly, what we will know tomorrow will be a superior and more accurate set of facts. Here too, as in religion, the progression of events is linear.

The end result is that the West seems always to be in pursuit of a golden tomorrow that is perfect in every way. The past, by contrast, is all sins, ignorance, shame, and pain.

The Indian view of time is more complicated. The Hindu idea of itihasa is that of events which have happened, are happening, and will happen again. There is no epochal event that defines reality for all eternity. Instead, such epochal events are spread all through time, repeating themselves at regular intervals, as surely as seasons do. Since ancient times, India has never had a clear demarcating line between science and religion. The human quest for truth weaves in and out of all physical and mental disciplines. India's religion and science both agree with each other on this cyclic view of reality. While ancient Hindu cosmology speaks of universe upon universe being created, sustained and eventually destroyed in periods of time trillions of years across, Hindu mythology chronicles tales of gods being born in the human world age after age for all eternity. In this view of the world, the past isn't just a cozy memory to be recalled with nostalgic fondness. It is as real as the present and as important as the future. Time isn't just a string of events happening one after the other, it is a wheel that goes around eternally. The human being (along with all his affairs) is a mere speck on the scale of eternity, but more than being a mere rider, he is also an essential part of the cycle of events.

These world views are reflected in the social realities of the West and the East. The child -- the representative of the future -- is the focus of the Western family. All energies are focussed on the individual of tomorrow. This individual, of course, grows up looking for answers in tomorrow and has something of a disconnect with his past.

The traditional family system in India, on the other hand, is not a unit by itself. It is a link that connects the individual with the past as well as the future because both are considered equally important. Elders see their ways continued in their children and children look back upon them for their sense of identity. It is, in many ways, a very fulfilling model.

The Western trend, now very prevalent in India as well, of sending aging parents to old-age homes is equivalent to cutting the individual's connection with his past.

The question regarding the need for the past is often raised. The answer is simple -- you can't go where you want to go if you don't remember where you came from. Amnesia is not a traveller's best friend. The presence of the past is important because it puts things in perspective. Without a link with history, an individual's quest for identity can quickly turn into a blind dash in complete darkness. The past is a cultural record. All societies big and small -- from nations to friend circles, have a culture. In a group of friends, everyone knows each other's nature. Each friend knows the other's likes, dislikes, and limits. This knowledge builds up over time and guides the friend circle's behaviour. Without the solid base that is its culture, the friend circle, or any society for that matter, can not survive.

For example, I believe that the roots of most of Pakistan's problems today lie in its disconnect with its history. The state of Pakistan turned its back on the millennia-old history that it shared with present-day India and adopted and tried to make alien Arabic roots its own. To put it simply, because they forgot where they came from, Pakistanis have no idea where they are going.

It can only be a seriously warped public discourse that equates being past-conscious with being 'backward'. A large part of the reasons behind India being considered backward is the tendency among many of us to equate the Western way with progress. As if there is something inherently anti-progress about the Indian way.

It is possible to be Indian and progressive at the same time.