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.

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

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...

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Time and Eternity Across Cultures

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...

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Legacy of Perennial Philosophy

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.


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...

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