Living in Kali Yuga — Part 2: Big Trouble

Some years ago, when I was deep in my investigation of the literature of Traditionalism, I happened upon a book in a used book store entitled Yuga: An Anatomy of our Fate by Marty Glass. Like Julius Evola’s Ride the Tiger before it, it bills itself as a “clarion call” to the aristocratic soul caught in this age of suffering. I read it with interest because, at that time, there wasn’t a lot of contemporary Traditionalist literature. What was available were largely reprints of the works of Evola, Guenon, Schuon, and so forth — men who had all been dead for decades. It was fascinating, then, to see something written for those who had come after and who felt a similar instinct: that something was profoundly wrong in the world which had not been wrong in the past.

And, like the books of other Traditionalists (notably excepting Schuon), Yuga read like a lamentation of dead innocence on a global scale, a paean to a lost Arthurian Avalon which never was and never could have been. With histrionics unmatched even by Percy Shelley, Glass throws accusations of false consciousness and straw men out by the fists-full across the whole swathe of human life. Page after page, Marty Glass goes beyond insisting that something is wrong here — which we all know well enough, thanks, Marty — to the eyebrow-raising assumption that most of modern humanity is too dense to realize it. But thank God Marty Glass and his Traditionalist heroes have the answers to wake us up from our deep, nightmare-rich slumber! Like Evola before him, Glass pretends that his book is useful, that it contains some method by which we can awaken and, finding ourselves in the dread Kali Yuga, rise above it as the spiritual nobles we (some of us, anyway) inwardly are. Unfortunately, page after page — again, like Evola — even the most careful of readers will find little more than pathetic lamentations and condemnations punctuated by occasional high-flown poetic declarations. There is nothing here which you could ever find to do, except perhaps curl up in bed and whimper about being “apolitical”.

Again we see how Western Traditionalists lift ideas from all over the place and apply them in a way that fits their assumptions, rather than learning from different traditions on their own terms and intelligently adapting that knowledge to modern Western circumstances. My own Natha lineage is explicitly “non-Hindu”, not because we repudiate our Hindu roots but because we don’t pretend to follow Indian social and religious patterns which simply do not suit the ways in which we have to live in the US, in Britain, in Australia, and so on. Historically, and as far as our spiritual practice goes, we’d still be recognized as Hindu in a broad sense. Similarly, many modern Western occultists are simultaneously Christian and non-Christian, depending on where you place your emphasis. The point is that an intellectually honest mystic or magician is adaptable and lives dynamically.

The main thing about Kali Yuga that gets left out of Traditionalist discussions on the topic is also perhaps the most important single thing about the Hindu interpretation: it is actionable. Kali Yuga is the most difficult time during which to practice any sort of spiritual discipline because it is so full of suffering and distractions from suffering; it is for this very reason, though, that every bit of effort made toward spiritual practice during this time is supposed to bear fruit far more easily and rapidly than in days past. Part of it is said to be the simple justice of it: if it’s hard and dangerous to do a thing, someone who does it deserves greater reward than someone who sticks with easier, safer tasks. But really it’s not much different from jogging while wearing a weighted vest: the extra strain increases gains just because the system has to work harder and therefore adapt to performing a more difficult set of movements. Even if we don’t accept the whole notion of the yugas, this still stands to reason. While we may lament many problems with the world, we should therefore not lament that the world is hard — at least those of us who focus on living a spiritual life. Though there are many forces trying to get us to create or expand karmas, we also have the opportunity to burn them off with great intensity if we engage intelligently with the events of the world.

Moreover, Kali Yuga is not a uniform set of conditions. As with any other broad environmental factor — such as diseases, famines, art movements, or political ideologies — Kali Yuga does not blanket the Earth evenly. Instead, like snow, it may fall in great quantities but due to wind and variable heat on the surface upon which it falls, it will turn to dirty slush here, melt away entirely there, and form great, deep drifts where it is blown against embankments and buildings. Let’s break the metaphor down.

Any number of conditions, internal and environmental, can sway how a person perceives and interacts with their world. Even that most orthodox of Hindu sources, Manusmrti — the closest Hindu parallel to the law texts of the Bible — mentions that a good and just king can make his kingdom like a pocket of the Golden Age in the midst of the Age of Darkness. I don’t think that Manu intended this to be mere symbolic hyperbole. His advice on just rulership, like that found in I Ching, is extremely idealistic and very hard to apply consistently in complex real-world governance, but in both of these cases the ethic is clear: if a ruler could even approximate virtuous and wise leadership, their homeland would be a spiritual as well as material refuge. Some classic manuals of Hatha and Raja Yoga even include a land with a just and good king in which to live as an extremely helpful aid alongside things like fresh food and water and a clean, uncluttered home. These don’t necessarily make one’s Yoga faster or more powerful, but they do make it easier — the main benefit of living in one of the “higher” yugas. Even if the yugas are literal, measurable, predictable spans of time, then, it is to a large extent up to human beings to determine how entrenched any given yuga is allowed to become.

It’s also worth noting in passing that these classic sources on good governance seem explicitly to define just governance as that which provides for the well-being of the people, protecting them and ensuring their good health, while taking a rather hands-off approach on daily affairs; at no point do they advocate for anything resembling fascism. Even Manu’s descriptions of the varnas (usually translated, problematically, as “castes”) defines them not as classes into which a person is born but which depend upon spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical aptitudes. While it’s a veritable certainty that, much like biblical law, Manu’s laws have never come anywhere close to being enforced in full, insofar as they’ve been taken as Manu himself wrote them, socio-economic classes had some degree of porousness to them; it is even thought possible to determine an individual’s true varna astrologically, and it may be entirely different from that of their parents. I’m not at all advocating for society to be rebuilt upon the lines of ancient, obsolete, and stratified ideals, but pointing out where those ideals differ from the misuse to which they’re put in some modern discourse.

It seems clear from the historical record, from art, from myths as old as the hills, that human society has never been anywhere near devoid of suffering. Human life and happiness has perhaps been valued differently at different times and places, with some civilizations perhaps placing a higher premium on humanity but with a narrower scope on who is counted; our own seems (mostly) to value life broadly a bit less than some but to spread that value somewhat more evenly across social and economic categories. Perhaps we can’t ever have the full value of human life until we are able to spread that net as widely as possible, to include, as suggested by law professor Christopher Stone’s paper for the Southern California Law Review entitled “Should Trees Have Standing?”, all natural “objects” as subjects under our systems of law. In short, perhaps what keeps us from enacting the fullness of which we are capable is not the cruel destiny of our present yuga but our own incapacity to see rightly.

Many Neo-Pagans and magicians today speak of “the veil between the worlds” — a sort of membrane which separates our workaday physical world from the planes inhabited variously by the dead, spirits, gods, demons, and whatever other subjects are experienced as fellow-inhabitants of the cosmos. “The veil” is intentionally vague and poetic, as there are any number of hypotheses as to what this veil might actually be. Perhaps it is a literal dividing substance, or a metaphysical distance between different layers of reality. In these and other interpretations, however, the veil is often accidentally literalized by language such as the apparent “thinning” of the veil at certain locations (places of especially terrible battles or grisly murders, or sites of numerous powerful magical rituals, for examples) or times (solstices, Halloween, Walpurgis Night, etc.). There’s an ongoing discussion among some occultists to the effect that the veil appears to be thinning everywhere, year round; strange things seem to be popping through, odd experiences becoming more commonplace, phenomena usually reserved for wooded vales on May Day Eve happening in suburban gardens. This has widely been associated with Tower Time — a term referring to the Tower card of the Tarot that some elements of the occult Left have taken to using in a way rather similar to how the Traditionalist/occult Right treats Kali Yuga. In other words, it us believed to have something to do with degeneracy and cataclysm either to come or in process.

In John Carpenter’s action-comedy masterpiece Big Trouble in Little China, the Daoist sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong) spots a river of what is obviously crude petroleum as the heroes are exploring deep underground to find the evil undead wizard Lo Pan’s (James Hong) hidden temple; Egg Shen gestures toward the flow in troubled wonder and exclaims, “Black blood of the Earth!” The white-guy-sidekick-who-thinks-he’s-the-hero Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) looks and says, “You mean oil?” to which Egg Shen responds emphatically, “No, I mean black blood of the Earth!”

Though Big Trouble in Little China could hardly be called a deeply philosophical film, this moment has always struck me as profoundly insightful. John Carpenter’s films aren’t all amazing, but at his best he manages to organically inject intelligence into movie genres usually relegated to popcorn fare. It isn’t that Egg Shen is primitive, nor that Jack Burton is wrong; they’re both perceiving accurately and expressing what they see. Egg Shen is certainly aware that crude petroleum is the substance processed into gasoline, plastics, etc. The difference is that Jack Burton can only see oil, where Egg Shen can see that the substance fits two descriptions simultaneously, and that one of those has ontological priority.

I propose that this is at least a partial explanation for things like the veil; there’s no literal membrane between planes, only layers of observational priority which we accidentally reify through the overuse of basically poetic language. Most of us are Jack Burton starting, for a variety of reasons, to get a glimpse through the opera glasses of Egg Shen and Lo Pan. Once more, with feeling: Kali Yuga, Tower Time, whatever we choose to call it, is actionable.

Much of magical, psychic, and mystical training is one way or another about opening up our internal organ of perception (that is to say, the mind) to these other layers. This can be done intentionally or accidentally, and it can happen gradually or cataclysmically. I suspect that the notably stressful times in which we presently find ourselves are serving as triggers for accidental cataclysms in those who are to some extent primed for them. I’ve no doubt that certain spiritual entities have a hand in it, as well, but an internal expansion of perceptive faculty is still required.

It doesn’t matter if Kali Yuga is literal or not. What matters is what we do. It’s best that we don’t become fanatical about our models, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use them to inspire change — in ourselves and in our world. They only become troublesome when we try to climb in and inhabit our models, to walk on our maps rather than on the streets they depict, wrapping ourselves in conceptual nets which hold us back from the peace, freedom, and happiness we seek for ourselves and our communities.

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