Maya Spirituality In The World Today

We have added this wonderful essay written by Jorge Reuben Rogachevsky, Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies, Department of International Languages and Cultures, St. Mary’s College of Maryland because the reading of his webpage is hard to the eyes with the bright blue background and dark text.

As the Christian world prepares for the coming of the second millennium, the Maya world in Mesoamerica is also preparing for a momentous new stage in the unfolding of the temporal dimension. The year 2012 A.D. will mark the beginning of a new era, with the initiation of new 13-stage cycle of 400-year units which defines the 5200-year Long Count of the Maya. According to Maya belief, the current era begun in what the Christian calendar would define as the year 3114 B.C.1, long before any human beings had ever conceived of a Christian world view.

I would assume that these very basic details about Maya culture and world view are unfamiliar to generally well educated readers, and even to those who may have had a long- standing interest in Central America. There has been a long history of obfuscation which has hidden the Maya world from our view. This history begun with the first arrival of the Spaniards and their war of conquest against the Maya population in the 16th century. The written record of the Maya, which was quite extensive, and which we need to assume contained historical, religious and scientific information in the codices found by the Spaniards, was systematically obliterated in an effort to carry out a full scale cultural genocide. Of the thousands of codices that had been preserved by the post-classic Maya intelligencia, only four have survived to the present day. One of the results of this devastating challenge to the integrity of Maya culture was that a unique writing system, one of only five independently developed in the history of humankind, was lost to the world for the past four hundred and fifty years, with the result that a formerly literate community was rendered almost universally illiterate.

An important outgrowth of this cultural genocide was that the Maya did not enter into the generalized consciousness of the modern world as co-equal participants with other cultures. The Maya came to be seen as a long extinct population, gaining renown for being significantly more exotic if not as antique as many of the defunct societies of the ancient Mesopotamian world. This perception was aided by the early European and U.S. “discoverers” of the classical era city states, such as Tikal and Palenque. Under the influence of 19th century teleological values which saw Western civilization as the pinnacle of human development, other societies came to be seen as at best precursors in the Western path towards dominance. Even cultures that had had a continuous interaction with Western societies dating back to the ancient world, such as North African civilizations, were cast in the exotic light of the pre-modern, an attitude which the Palestinian-American literary and cultural critic, Edward Said, has denominated as “orientalism.” This attitude of orientalism extended beyond the geographic orient, and came to encompass Native American societies such as the Maya and the Aztec. The influence of orientalist thought was such that many artifacts of what is considered the most ancient of Mesoamerican civilizations, the Olmecs, were actually classified as being of Chinese origin.

Because the Maya had been driven into a condition of social and cultural subjugation, nobody could imagine that the illiterate and down-trodden peasants that inhabited areas of contemporary Guatemala and southern Mexico were actually the descendants of the people who built the tallest structures in the Americas until the construction of the 20th century skyscrapers. The classical Maya were relegated to a mythical past that supposedly had no connection to the present. Learned scholars wondered why the Maya had disappeared. Lacking the tools to interpret the Maya monumental carvings, which in the past had communicated volumes regarding Maya history and culture, Mayanists postulated the existence of a civilization of philosopher priests engaged in a study of the cosmos and revering time as a deity, with no involvement with the day-to-day concerns of building powerful city states and providing for large urbanized populations. The naivete of these scholars is outstanding when one considers that they did not bother to ask very basic questions, such as who quarried the enormous stones that went into the construction of the massive temples at Tikal; how was this population fed and housed; what created the social bond that made this epic labor meaningful; and, what happened to all these people once the authority of the rulers of the city states collapsed? These questions largely went unasked as an image of the exotic and vanished Maya was promulgated in the scholarly and popular literature.

The veil of exoticism that was placed over classical Maya culture further helped to obscure the extant Maya population from view. If thought of at all, the present-day Maya came to be subsumed under the general category of the Central American peasant, assumed to be predominantly mestizo not only in her or his physical characteristics, but also culturally. It has generally been taken for granted, for example, that the Maya are a Christianized population, who may maintain certain rituals and may hold certain beliefs that might appear bizarre to the mainstream of Christian society, but who are nonetheless fully assimilated into the Western fold through their common investment in the divinity of Jesus Christ. I would claim that this perception on the part of outsiders is another instance in the long history of displacing real live Maya culture from the contemporary world. If the Maya can be defined as a Christian population then there is no need to come to terms with truly Maya values and perceptions as a component of the modern world.

There are very specific interests both within and outside of Guatemala, and more recently Mexico, which would find it advantageous to hide the true nature of Maya culture. If we consider, for example, the ferocious attacks which the Guatemalan army levied against the indigenous population in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we can identify on the one hand the extreme fear which the prospect of a Maya uprising engendered in the ladino elite, and on the other hand we can see how a racially and culturally motivated war was capable of being translated into the ideology of the Cold War precisely because international awareness of the integrity of the Maya community had not yet been generated. As a point of contrast we may look at the comparative restraint that the Mexican army has had to maintain in the face of an indigenous challenge in the south after the light of public scrutiny had already been focused on the plight of the Maya through, among other efforts, the well-publicized life of the Maya-K’iche’ Nobel Peace Laureate, Rigoberta Menchú..

Currently in the Guatemalan press there is a lively debate being waged regarding the nature of Guatemalan national identity, and in particular the identity of the Maya population. Many ladino intellectuals, among them some who in the tumultuous conflicts of the post-Arbenz era actively participated in left-wing organizations, are putting into question the integrity of Maya cultural identity by referring to such issues as the assimilation by the Maya of Christian religious values, or even the inadmissibility of using the term Maya to refer to a population that is a thousand years removed from grandeur of Maya civilization. If the Maya are really taken seriously as a cultural and ethnic group numbering perhaps some eight to ten million people, then ladino hegemony in Guatemala and parts of Mexico would be seriously put into question.

Not wishing to come forth sounding sanctimonious, I need to confess that my own notions regarding the Maya until relatively recently had been shaped by the ideas that I now reject. Not having had an opportunity to travel to Guatemala until the summer of 1993, I had assumed what has been the predominant perception on the part of outsiders, and many insiders, and had framed in my own mind the notion that upon visiting Guatemala I might find a syncretic culture, basing myself on my previous studies of Caribbean culture and the type of syncretism between Christian and African religious culture which one finds in places such as Haiti and Cuba. However, after spending a year in Guatemala, visiting many highland communities, talking with Maya intellectuals, and deepening my studies on the evolution of Maya culture, I have come to hold a very different opinion. There is a Maya spirituality which is contemporaneous in the modern world. The strength of this spirituality has maintained social bonds which have allowed Maya culture to survive more than four centuries of subjugation. Some of the key elements of this spirituality are associated with a belief in the cyclical nature of time. For the Maya, unlike the principal conceptions in Western thought, time is not a straight line, and the past is not something to be transcended, but rather something to be tapped, much as a tree taps into the nutrients of the soil when it extends its roots underground.

This alternative conception of time, if it were made an aspect of modern thought, would potentially lead to a profound re-articulation of the dichotomy between tradition and modernity. It is in good part this rootedness and centerdness of Maya culture in a conception of tradition as a living force which has allowed Maya communities to survive into modern times. This is an aspect of Maya spirituality which may offer valuable assistance to the very contemporary need for redefining our conception of progress. The models available within the Western tradition for understanding our place within a temporal framework have for the most part led us to an epistemological dead end. The conservative religious tradition continues to postulate a cataclysmic orgy of divine retribution. The liberal capitalist world view offers a hedonistic orgy of consumerism. Neither conception will allow us to address the multiplicity of human needs that currently confront us. The radical tradition for its own part, in classical Oedipal fashion, has been blinded by its hubris and its belief that progress will redeem us. We are desperately in need of a world view that will help us to abandon our conception of time as an irreversible straight line so that we can stop and take stock of the multiplicity of world cultures which have evolved over time and which share our contemporary world, both physically and spiritually. The Maya conception of cyclical time can help us formulate such a perspective.

More than that, however, if we are able to lift the veil of obscurity which has been draped over the Maya, we may be able to engage in a dialogue with a cultural tradition which has its roots deeply implanted in the most ancient cultural soil of the Americas. Such a process would open up a rich vein of cultural energy which could create the possibilities for engendering a deeply American cultural Renaissance, whereby the values of Native American societies begin to count once again among the revered traditions of humanity. This reaching back into an autochthonous American past would not be an attempt to reconnect with the mythic pre-history of our continent, but rather would tap into the efforts of the present-day Maya to develop a political awareness and organizational capabilities which would allow them to make new claims from the vantage point of the most ancient extant tradition. For those of us who inhabit the American soil this re-implanting in the traditions of the land could begin to heal the spiritual wounds created by the genocidal ideology of progress that our Western tradition inflicted.

1 . The span between 3114 B.C. and 2012 A.D. is equivalent to 5126 years in our calendar, rather than 5200, because for purposes of calendric computation the Maya utilize a 360-day year, or tun, even though the actual solar length of the year was known to the Maya many centuries ago.

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One Response to “Maya Spirituality In The World Today”

  1. HI,
    I would like to add Basques to the list of old civilizations with an unrelated langugage, Euskara, and cosmovision of the pagans mother-earth based natural linked protolanguage and religions. Basque is one uniques languages, five, out to 6000, throughout the world, that are unrelated to any other language families.
    Basques blood type and factor are also non linked to other european blood types and factors. Basques were the few people in the last great ice age to survive in the caves of the pyrinees. They’re say to be direct descendents of cro magnon sub specie of hominid homo sapiens sapiens, it’s also often said another theory on Basques. They would be migrants from america continent in past catastrophe eras and in early times maritim interactions knowledge flows with mesoamericans and mesopotamians. Basques were last in Europe to adopt agriculture way of life. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_history_of_Europe#Paleolithic_migrations
    Basques mythology speaks also about the serpent of the seven heads and the long tail, meaning venus, as all in other antique civilisations accounts. Venus is the only planet with name in euskara. Basque as unique language, has its own cosmovision, or way of viewing the world. Saying, describing the world, expereincing the nature of its relations in total integration. Basques share these views with mayans. I hope to contribute. That is way they say they’re not spanish and that they are nation and want independence, or right of selfdetermination. Basques were so jealous of their languge that litterally means “those who have the basque” check for Basque history of the world, M.urlansky or, The country of Basque, Xamar.

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