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Time and Eternity is the culminating work of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy’s career, a career increasingly dedicated to an advocacy of the perennial philosophy. The essence of the perennial philosophy is vitalist and mystic rather than empirical or rationalistic (in the modernist sense). The mystic begins with the premise that reality is necessarily singular although it appears to be multiple and identifies with the universal and enduring absolute in order to escape the illusory world of multiplicity, conflict, and death. Once one gains a proper understanding of the illusory appearance of the world of multiplicity, conflict, and death, one comes to the mystic realization that becoming is not a contradiction of being but the epiphany of being.

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This work, published in the last year of Coomaraswamy’s life, is a comparison of the notions of time and eternity across several cultures. According to the philosopher, the key to happiness is in imitating and identifying with the living and enduring principle that informs reality and life. That vitalistic force, variously labeled, passes out of eternity into time in order to help beings pass out of time into eternity. This passage is crucial for obtaining genuine happiness and bliss.

The book opens with a brief introduction, followed by chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, Grecian philosophy, Islam, and Christianity and modernity. In each chapter, Coomaraswamy examines the culture’s understanding of time and eternity, making numerous cross-cultural comparisons. The introduction defines the terms that are the central focus of the book and defends the appropriateness of philosophical discourse on the topic of time and eternity.

Empirical and Philosophical Definitions of Time

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Coomaraswamy distinguishes between empirical opinion and axiomatic truth, the “bastard” truth of fact and the legitimate truth of intelligible reason. Citing philosophers such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Democritus of Abdera, Coomaraswamy argues that modernist, scientistic attempts to “explain” the nature of time are naïve, disingenuous, or both. From the viewpoint of the perennial philosophy, empirical descriptions are “explanations” only to the foolish and shallow-minded. Facts describe how phenomena act, while failing to explain why they act the way they do. Whether facts are considered singularly or grouped together into narratives, they at best establish a superficial probability. They lack both certainty and genuine understanding.

In contrast to the descriptive probabilities of empirical scientism, philosophical reflection on the nature of time and eternity results in certain clear possibilities. Coomaraswamy discusses how a review of time begins with two possibilities: It can be viewed as all or any part of the continuum of past and future, or as that present point of time that distinguishes the past from the future. Similarly, eternity can be viewed as either a duration without beginning or end, or that unextended point of time that is “now.”

Coomaraswamy states that the idea that time has a beginning and an end— unlike eternity, which is everlasting in duration—is absurd. Citing Saint Augustine’s famous question, Where was God before God made the universe?, Coomaraswamy observes that because time and the world presuppose each other, the word “before” in such a question has no meaning whatever. Hence, the world began not in time but originated in the first principle. God created, and is now still creating, the world. Because the metaphysical doctrine of the perennial philosophy contrasts time as a continuum with the eternity that is not in time, then the eternal cannot properly be called everlasting. The alternative to time is not an eternity of endless time; eternity is now.

If time is a continuum within creation, and both time and creation are dependent upon now, then the question of what is ultimately real arises. Relying upon a cosmopolitan variety of sources, the perennial philosophy concludes that things are false in the sense that an imitation, though it exists, is not the real thing; the philosophy distinguishes between the relative reality of the artifact and the greater reality. The particular is real but not as real as the universal ideal toward which it aspires. There are then degrees of reality, just as there are degrees of quality. A central principle of the perennial philosophy is the qualitative principle that the ideal is more real than that which temporally imitates the ideal.

Time and Eternity Across Cultures

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In the first chapter, Coomaraswamy examines the Hindu understanding of time and eternity. That tradition holds that time is the source of past and present, uniting procession, recession, and stasis and, therefore, reality. According to the Katha Upanishad, Brahma is the “Lord of what hath been and shall be; He is both today and tomorrow.” Brahma has both a time and timeless form. The timeless form of Brahma is the creator of time, of the moments, hours, days, and years that have separate existences. A moment is the ultimate minimum of time, and the uninterrupted flow of moments is called time. The cumulative result of all those moments of time makes up the world. By using those moments, people can be, or fail to be, all that they ought to be. The proper use of those moments of time is in seeking the timeless eternity; that timeless eternity is the ultimate reality, known as Brahma. In so doing, people can escape both time and death.

In the third chapter, Coomaraswamy examines the Buddhist understanding of time and eternity. Buddhism’s essential observation on the subject is that change is constant in the world and that all change is dying. Ultimately, then, beings and the self are both unreal because they are not stable. Time is past, future, or present: In the past thought-moment one lived; in the future thought-moment one will live; and in the present thought-moment one is alive. The association of the world, time, and death is axiomatic to Buddhist philosophy, but reality is not limited to those conditions.

In the spirit of the perennial philosophy, Coomaraswamy cites philosophers Aristotle, Heraclitus of Ephesus, and even Saint Augustine to support a Buddhist point. All agree that it is only the realm of time and sense that continues subject to destruction and generation. However, there is a realm of stability and constancy that is neither empirical nor temporal. In the Buddhist view, time is a continuum and the immanent moment in time is not a part of time. It is in the realm of the immanent moment where stability is found and death and suffering can be escaped. Those who realize this experience an awakening. This timeless or instantaneous awakening occurs when the individual achieves a mystic union with the eternal that is not part of time.

The Greek tradition is introduced by reference to Parmenides, who argues that in contrast to things that are momentary and in decay, there exists a realm of that which is complete, immoveable, and endless. For Plato, the world was made by Zeus according to the same stable eternity. Time and the universe are generated together according to the paradigm of the everlasting nature. Time and the universe are therefore temporal imitations of an eternal ideal, an eternal ideal that is ultimately most real. The distinction of things being less or more real, or as they are rather than as they ought to be, is clarified in Plato’s Philbos (c. 360-347 b.c.e.; Philebus, 1804). In this work, Plato explains that there is one authentic self and another, which is ever pursuing something other than itself. It is the authentic self that is most real and that exists out of the realm of time. As Aristotle puts it, the most real self exists in the eternity that is not in time. The Greek view of time and eternity is concluded by reference to Plutarch and Plotinus. Plutarch reflects that what is ultimately real is eternal, unborn, and unperishing—unaffected by time. For Plutarch, this serves as a definition of God. Plotinus also identifies life as an imitation of eternity and identifies eternity with God who reconciles time with now.

A variety of understandings of time and eternity exist within Islam. One Islamic view, the Ash’arite, holds that time is made up of “nows,”or present moments, each of which is continuously created by Allah. Accordingly, only Allah holds together the whole stream of the existence of the world. Therefore, the conception of causality in the universe is limited to the workings of Allah. This understanding of time is associated with an atomistic view of creation. The world is made of atoms that have no quantity, but out of which compounds can be made that possess quantity. Time and space appear to be continuous but in fact consist of a series of atomistic moments, whose source is Allah, who is the only ultimate reality.

Coomaraswamy briefly discusses possible Buddhist and Vedic origins for this Muslim atomism. Consistent with the perennial philosophy to which he is devoted, however, he notes that the important question is not one of historical origin but rather of ontology. From the viewpoint of ontology, Coomaraswamy finds fault with this particular vision of time, space, and eternity, concluding that the Sufi understanding of time as an indivisible instant is more coherent. He notes that the Sufi Islamic (and Christian) doctrines of time and eternity could have been derived from Platonic-Aristotelian sources. The Sufi hold that phenomena are perpetually changing and being created anew, while God remains as he is. Coomaraswamy summarizes the Sufi vision of time as being an imitation of eternity, much as becoming is of being and as thinking is of knowing. Now devours future and past; Time (now) is the devourer of time. Time is that whereby a person becomes independent of past and future; those who possess it are happy with God in the present. Indeed, being thus situated between the past and the future is the most precious of human things. The Sufi concept of the momentary existence of accidents does not exclude causality, butthe operation of this causality is deemed mysterious.

The Christian and modern doctrines of time and eternity share an essential idea with the previously discussed traditions. That idea is that corruptibility is inseparable from any existence in time, and that there is only one escape from that corruption: passing over from the flux of temporal existence to a present eternity in which there is neither a yesterday nor a tomorrow. The reality of the eternal present is found in the Holy Ghost, whose actions are immediate. They are immediate because the instant, in which God dwells, terminates time—and space as well. Time and space are continuous, not atomistic; indeed, Augustine notes that God “is” where “has been” and “will be” cannot be. Because God “is,” then the problem of free will is resolved. Because God views as present what appears to people as the future, there can be no predestination that precludes free will. Further, Boethius compares time to the circumference of a circle of which the center is eternity; the closer one is to the center, the less one is subject to the necessity of fate, since fate is grounded in time, space, and motion. Thus, philosopher Meister Eckhart speaks of the world as a circle centered on God. The center of that circle is where time (the past and present) are transcended by Time (the eternal now). It is in the unified experience of the eternal now that the processes of creation and destruction are transcended.

Legacy of Perennial Philosophy

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Time and Eternity is widely recognized as a work of erudite and cosmopolitan scholarship. The question of its importance as a philosophical work elicits radically different responses. For those who believe that reality is purposeful, Time and Eternity presents a cosmopolitan and penetrating ontological analysis. For those who embrace the empirical and Kantian foundations of modernity, Coomaraswamy’s critique of modernity is unconvincing and even reactionary. Similarly, as he states in his last chapter, those who elect to live in a merely existential world without meaning will benefit neither from his scholarship nor from the perennial philosophy to which he is devoted. As Coomaraswamy concludes, those are the people who fail to see the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.


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Additional Reading

Bagchee, Moni. Ananda Coomaraswamy: A Study. Varanasi (Benares), India: Bharata Manisha, 1977. This biographical work presents a picture of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy not only as a scholar, philosopher, and theologian but also as a private, public, and international personality. The author discusses the paradox of writing a biography for Coomaraswamy, given that his work and his beliefs denied the importance of biography.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish. The Wisdom of Ananda Coomaraswamy: Being Glimpses of the Mind of Ananda Coomaraswamy. Presented by S. Durai Raja Singham. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: S. Durai Raja Singham, 1979. This volume is a wide-ranging annotated anthology of Coomaraswamy’s most telling aphorisms. Arranged topically, the aphorisms include Coomaraswamy’s thoughts on art, beauty, Indian women, music, competition, religion, and political figures.

Dasgupta, Kalyan Kumar, ed. Ananda Coomaraswamy: A Centenary Volume. Calcutta, India: Calcutta University, 1981. This collection of essays pays tribute to Coomaraswamy’s contributions to the study of Indian art, iconography, philosophy, aesthetics, religious history, and contemporary politics. The preface of this book provides an exposition of the intellectual journey of Coomaraswamy from empiricist to mystic and from art historian to metaphysician. For advanced undergraduates.

Livingston, Ray. The Traditional Theory of Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962. The author presents a concise study of the works of Coomaraswamy from which he develops a perennial philosophy of literature. While using concepts presented by Coomaraswamy in an Eastern context, he explicates and applies those concepts within the historical continuum of Western literature.

Narasimhaiah, C. D. Ananda Coomaraswamy: Centenary Essays. Prasaranga, India: University of Mysore, 1982. This tribute to Coomaraswamy presents a collection of essays on his work and ideas. These essays center on three realms of scholarly study that Coomaraswamy finds symbiotic: metaphysics, politics, and art. For advanced undergraduates.

Quinn, William W. The Only Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Surveying the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Rene Guenon, this book explores the first principals of perennial philosophy and suggests the decline of Western society is due to the decreasing importance placed on these principals.

Raja Singham, S. Durai, comp. Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy: A Handbook. Malaysia: s.n., 1979. This volume provides an extensive compendium of works published by Coomaraswamy. Includes an annotated chronological bibliography, topical listings, and lists of articles and reviews.

Sastri, P. S. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. India: Arnold-Heinemann, 1974. The author emphasizes that although Coomaraswamy is well known as an art historian, his major contributions to scholarship are in the realms of religion, mysticism, and metaphysics. In those realms, he is the proponent of the perennial philosophy, which, in the philosopher’s view, is the basis of all significant thought in the East and West. A critical evaluation of that position is lacking.

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