“We must do what the gods did in the beginning” (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, VII, 2, 1, 4).
“Thus the gods did; thus men do” (Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, I, 5, 9, 4).
This Indian adage summarizes all the theory underlying rituals in all countries.Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return
This is how the legendary scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, summarizes one of his deepest insights in his book The Myth of the Eternal Return. That insight not only came to be central to Eliade’s work, but remains highly influential in the field of religious studies to this day.
Let’s take a closer look at what Eliade believed was the most powerful religious impulse of primitive man. The impulse to become universal.
The Sacred And Profane – Two Planes Of Existence
To understand our ancestors, Eliade tells us, we must understand the way they saw reality was vastly different from how we see it today. In archaic times, man saw the world as the intersection of two planes of existence: the sacred and the profane.
The plane of the sacred was the plane of forms, to use Plato’s terms, or of archetypes and categories, to use Eliade’s. The sacred contained gods, ideals, universals… things that exist beyond time and space. The sacred was the place of permanence, immortality, and power. The wellspring of life, the creative ground of being.
The plane of the profane contained… well, it contained everything else. Everything mundane, trivial, impermanent, undefined, banal. All the random accidents of daily experience. Everything that doesn’t fall into a category, that doesn’t follow an ideal. There was nothing universal about the profane – it existed concretely in time and space, it had a beginning and an end. Since it was the plane of change, the profane was also the plane of decay, of death.
Now And Then
Notice how modern thinking is flipped on its head when we examine archaic ontology. Everything you can see, touch, smell, everything that has a material existence in space and time, everything we would today call real – was, for archaic man, unreal. Or rather, it was only real insofar as it expressed a transcendent ideal, an archetype in the plane of the sacred.
It was the archetype, the universal that appeared real to archaic man, while the particularities of space and time seemed like pale reflections of ultimate reality.
Of course, all of this is Eliade’s own terminology. He himself reminds us primitive man never used such terms and philosophical concepts. Nonetheless, Eliade tells us primitive man acted out these beliefs, even if he did so unconsciously.
Life In The Sacred
Anyway, the point is archaic man always strove to be as close to the sacred as possible – for it was the sacred that was real for him. Eliade writes:
“[A]n object or an act becomes real only insofar as it imitates or repeats an archetype. Thus, reality is acquired solely through repetition or participation; everything which lacks an exemplary model is ‘meaningless.’ i.e., it lacks reality” …
[N]either the objects of the external world nor human acts, properly speaking, have any … intrinsic value [for archaic man]. Objects or acts acquire a value, and in so doing become real, because they participate … in a reality that transcends them.
Among countless stones, one stone becomes sacred—and hence instantly becomes saturated with being … The object appears as the receptacle of an exterior force that differentiates it from its milieu and gives it meaning and value. [It appears] incompressible, invulnerable, it is that which man is not …Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return
Eliade sees all actions of archaic man as motivated by the same impulse – escaping the profane and concrete and entering the sacred and universal. In Ernest Becker’s terms, this translates as escaping death and entering into immortality.
We can see then how the biological instinct for survival evolved into a psychological drive to remain in reality, in the realm of the sacred.
Repetition, Imitation, Participation
But how did archaic man enter the plane of the sacred, the real?
Well, his technique for achieving this was, in Eliade’s terms – repetition, imitation, and participation.
In simple words, since the plane of the sacred contained all life, meaning, and reality – primitive man modeled every aspect of his life after sacred archetypes.
For example, marriage was performed as a repetition of the cosmic union of opposites. Conflict was perceived as an echo of the war of the gods. Building and crafting were an imitation of cosmic creation.
Eliade gives us the following example of the art of building in ancient India:
In India, before a single stone is laid, “The astrologer shows what spot in the foundation is exactly above the head of the snake that supports the world. The mason fashions a little wooden peg from the wood of the Khadira tree, and with a coconut drives the peg into the ground at this particular spot, in such a way as to peg the head of the snake securely down …
[T]he act of foundation … repeats the cosmogonic act, for to “secure” the snake’s head, to drive the peg into it, is to imitate the primordial gesture of Soma … or of Indra when the latter “smote the Serpent in his lair” … when his thunderbolt “cut off its head” …Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return
The serpent here symbolizes chaos, which Indra conquers and converts into order. This, of course, is the sacred meaning of laying the foundations for a new building, as the ancient Indians well understood.
It is through this technique of repetition or imitation that a concrete, otherwise profane action becomes universal and thus sacred. By identifying with a myth or an archetype, man participates in ultimate reality and enters the plane of the gods, of life everlasting.
Be Yourself vs Imitate Yourself
This leads us to a fascinating conclusion. Whereas our modern culture’s highest goal is to become an outstanding individual (to ‘put a dent in the universe’, as Steve Jobs put it), in archaic times the ideal was just the reverse.
[T]he man of a traditional culture sees himself as real only to the extent that he ceases to be himself … imitating and repeating the gestures of another. In other words, he sees himself as real … as “truly himself,” only, and precisely, insofar as he ceases to be so.
This conclusion might seem less bizarre to those familiar with eastern wisdom traditions like Buddhism and Taoism. There, the individual self is regularly depicted as an obstacle on the spiritual path, though for altogether different reasons.Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return
Here Eliade is giving us an alternative reading of this well-known motif. To transcend the small self in the archaic imagination is to transcend the particular, the profane – and enter the universal, the sacred.
It is to escape the transitory reality of your individual life, full of random and meaningless particularities – and to connect with the universal patterns of human life. For archaic man, these patterns were best captured by myths and legends. Thus, he strove to participate in these universal patterns by aligning his own life to them as closely as he could manage.
Entering The Sacred Today
Eliade hints that there might be some timeless wisdom in the archaic way of thinking. Wisdom we may bring into our own lives even today. He asks us to reflect on the following:
What is personal … in the emotion we feel when we listen to the music of Bach, in the attention necessary for the solution of a mathematical problem, in the concentrated lucidity presupposed by the examination of any philosophical question?Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return
What Eliade is getting at here is the following. Whenever we are deeply immersed in experience, whenever we enter what modern science calls the ‘flow state’ – all sense of space and time disappears and only the present moment remains. Every notion of a distance between you as a subject and the experience as an object is also gone.
What remains is the experience itself, outside of space and time, that is to say, infinite and eternal.
This modern take on archaic thinking might point to some deep truth about life. Perhaps, psychologically speaking, there really is some universal, platonic plane of reality hidden beneath ordinary experience. A plane of reality our ancestors knew how to enter, but one we have lost the way to today…