When seasons slow down
The change of seasons has been one of the most universal means for mankind to recognise order in nature and patterning their own lives in accordance with it. Heraclitus, the ancient Ionian philosopher, characterized nature in a paradox: 'Change is the only unchanging reality' - an observation echoed in his great contemporary in India, Lord Buddha who said: Sabbe dhamma anichcha (All objects are impermanent).
However, the cycle of seasons, like the day-and-night cycle, is perceived as conforming an unchanging pattern: individuals come and go but the cycles of birth and death persist as do the cycles of seasons or that of sunrise and sunset or waxing and waning of the moon. The Sanskrit word for season, rtu, derives from rta meaning unchanging cosmic order. Thus the cycles of seasons has been a chilling reminder of death and evanescence and a reassurance of hope and renewal. As Shelly put it: 'O Wind if winter comes/ Can spring be far behind?'
Whether the order perceived is innate to the mind or is part of the given outside has long been a point of debate between the greatest philosophers and of speculation among artists and visionaries. Idealists locate the principle of order in consciousness whereas materialists identify it in nature.
William James says that a newly born child finds the world 'a big buzzing confusion'. Shakespere's Hamlet also recognised it as chaos but reluctantly accepts the responsibility to create order: 'Time is out of joint! Aye, that I was ever born to set it right.'
Ancients, in their pantheistic imagination, ascribed the cycles of seasons to the mysteries of the birth and death of gods. This became the means of shaping their rites and ritual, which, in turn, became the basis of human cultures. For instance, the ritualistic enactment of the sacrifice of Dionysus, the god of fertility, became the foundation of ancient Greek tragedy. Thus Greek tragedy was an extension of winter festivals. Similarly, Elizabethan comedy is said to have evolved from spring festivals of England. Northrop Frye, the great Canadian literary theorist categorises poetic/narrative genres along the pattern of seasons:
Winter: Satire (or Dark Comedy)
Spring: Comedy (or Light Comedy)
Because arts, like mythology, are also exercises in the perception and celebration of order, they find great inspiration and example in nature characterized by the cycle of seasons.
Though arts try to 'immortalise time's tyrannical claim', they fall prey to ravages of time like all the monuments the world over battered by seasons and the blows of rain, wind, water and the heat of the sun. Before Guttenberg invented the magic of printing, works of poetry had to be guarded cautiously in palm leaf, leather or some other medium to minimize damages of all-devouring time. Art as a means of eternising evanescence made its main source and subject seasons, which are the manifestations of unchanging reality of change.
Chinese and Japanese arts of poetry and painting made seasons their mainstay. Japanese haiku poetry depended heavily on imagery drawn from different seasons:
The usually hateful crow-
He too this morning
On the snow!
This poetic exclamation by the great poet Issa could not have shaped itself but for the poet's intimate experience of wintry landscape. In Sanskrit, poetry metaphors of seasons became vibhavas (causal factors) that lead to the production of particular rasas. This example was followed by Indian poets in different languages.
The author of Kannada Mahabharata, Kumaravyasa, uses spring as the vibhava of King Pandu's fatal erotic fascination for his consort Madri. Though forbidden by sages to sleep with his wife which is sure to result in his death, he becomes the victim of irrepressible sexual attraction as Manmatha, god of spring, goes shooting his darts at everyone. 'Spring has invaded Pandu,' says Kumaravyasa. Such is the effect of seasons on human beings. It is for this reason that Keats said:
Four seasons fill the measure of the year;
Four seasons are there in the mind of man
The change of seasons, which have an overarching importance in arts, culture and religion, is understood differently in science. The flow of seasons is not on account of the birth or death of any God, but because of the tilt of the earth's axis during its annual orbiting around the sun and resultant different ways in which the solar rays reach the earth.
During summer months when the north pole is tilted towards the sun, there is maximum heat whereas in winter when it has tilted away, there is less heat. However, heat and cold are not experienced to an equal degree all over the world because different parts of the globe are oriented and distanced from the sun in different degrees, which makes for differences in polar, tropical and subtropical temperatures.
However, we want to understand seasons, they do bring a great sense of regularity and order to our lives. We normally perceive regularity as order and the unexpected as chaos. The inhabitants of Northern Europe go into depression when the sun completely disappears in the worst months of winter. Similarly the phenomenon of the midnight sun is not very welcome. If snow does not appear in time in the Himalayan altitudes, it is sign that there will be less water in the life-giving rivers.
What happens when seasons slow down or stand still?
The fact that winter is delayed this year in North Europe has come as a surprise though people are happy enjoying the continued warmth. Even the first signs of snow have not appeared till first week of January. In the two last winters, snowfall started early in November and it was all ice on the roads by now. Last year in particular was considered one of the worst winters in the century whereas this year promises to be one of the warmest the like of which has not happened since 1921.
The extent to which this sudden change inspired TS Eliot's Waste Land, the classic of modernist poetry published in 1922, has not, to the best of my knowledge, recognized by critics and scholars. The poem alludes to how seasons were going awry in the very first line: 'April is the cruellest month..' Later, it says: 'Winter kept us warm.'
Weather pundits blame the present climatic anomaly on global warming. However, global warming, which is nearly a hundred years old, is said to have reached its most critical stage three decades ago. Why did it then happen in 1921?
There are myths all over the world speaking of climatic anamolies and upheavals in the ancient times. There are different versions of Great Flood myth in different cultures apart from the best known Biblical story of Noah's Ark or the Hindu myth of Manvantara. The myth of the descent of Ganga tells us that, before Bhagirata performed rigorous austerities to force Ganga to come down, there was a very long period of draught.
The accounts of the subjects of past life therapy in the recent past have given the first-hand account of a cataclysm that was unleashed in Atlantis when the highly advanced scientists of those times made some experiments to bring together the two poles.
The Kalajnana traditions in South India predict that, among other things, the disturbance of seasons, point the way to the advent of a great restorer who will re-establish the order.
Whether we are scientists, mythologists or just common people, we are always trying to find order in disorder. Even when order is disturbed, we find or imagine an intact higher order. Unless we order time into a familiar recurrent pattern, we cannot make a home of 'the big buzzing confusion' around us.
More about H S Shivaprakash
Prof H S Shivaprakash is an acclaimed English professor and writer. He is currently working as the Director, Tagore Centre, Berlin at Indian Embassy in Germany. He is also heading India's cultural mission in Germany. He was the Dean, Department of Arts and Aesthetics Studies at the JNU, Delhi. He was also the Editor of Kendra Sahithya Academy journal ' Indian Literature'. He Authored eight books of poems, nine plays, two books of criticism in Kannada and English. He is a recipient of Central Sangeet, Natak Academy Award and MHRD Fellowship for Literature.
- + The evolution of modern Indian theatre
- + Contemporary Indian literatures
- + Shifting current
- + Loss of home
- + Like a caged bird in captivity…
- + Language, the basis of unity and conflict
- + The streams of South Indian cinema
- + Dynamics of pre-modern South Indian cultures
- + Currents and cross-currents of South Indian cultures