Deeper than our desire for material trophies is the need to know who and what we are, how we relate to those around us and to the world we all occupy. So true is this that a person who cannot usefully satisfy himself about these questions is said to be alienated, dissociated from the mainstream of his own consciousness. The measure in which a culture is able to endow its members with an identity and a sense of social solidarity is one criterion by which we rank it in terms of worth and standing. Alienation or the reverse — psychological unity — results from whether the spiritual tradition prevailing within the culture has become bankrupt or is yet a living power. If the former, the necessity is an urgent one, because "not by bread alone" does man live and thrive. If he could, he would be something less than man. We require the bread of intellectual conviction to satisfy the mind's questions and the intuitive bread of the heart to assuage the thirst for spiritual comprehension of ourselves and the universe.
Because their sacred traditions gave them reliable and satisfying descriptions of themselves, their antecedents, and the universe, American Indian peoples for long millennia have bad a very precise notion of who they are, where they came from, and where they are in the evolutionary trek of the ages. This absorbing vision of the panorama of human history can enrich our own Judeo-Christian story, for it embraces a manifold conception of the Great in the Small, the cosmic in man. It tells of four previous great racial and geological eras, sometimes speaks of the present as a fifth era, and it can be found in a variety of parallel forms from South to North America.
One of its more memorable versions is that of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, an unusual Andean Indian of high-caste antecedents whose mother was a daughter of the great Inca, Tupac Yupanqui. For thirty years, from 1583 to 1613, this man traveled all over Peru interceding for and trying to protect his unfortunate people from Spanish depredation. Finally Guaman Poma composed an illustrated book which proudly recounted his people's prehistoric origins, and openly and fearlessly attacked the cruel tyranny of Spanish rule. Addressing his book to King Philip II, the author had the temerity to carry it himself, on foot, down to Lima, the viceroyal capital on the coast, for transmission to Spain. His personal fate is not known, but the book itself, titled Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno, disappeared and did not turn up again until 1908 when it was found by accident, not in Spain, but in the Royal Library at Copenhagen — some 300 years after its composition The celebrated English historian of Peru, Sir Clements Markham, said of Guaman Poma and his work:
How the book, with all those damning illustrations, escaped destruction and how it was ever allowed to be sent home, is a mystery. One would give much to know the fate of the author, so full of compassion for his ill-fated countrymen, diligent as a collector of information of all kinds, proud of his ancestry, a gifted artist, full of sympathy, fearless in the exposure of injustice and cruelty. Guaman Poma was a hero of whom any country might be proud. At length this most important work is in good and sympathetic hands, and will be given to the world. It is, without exception, the most remarkable as well as the most interesting production of native genius that has come down to our time. -- The Incas of Peru, pp.18-19
In Pakarimoc-Runa, the first age or Dawn of Humanity, says the Nueva Coronica, there were "direct relations between men and gods." Wari-Runa, the second, was that of giant human autochthones who increased in numbers and lived primitively. In the Purun-Runa which followed, mankind diversified in different lineages or castes, gained the arts and sciences, built cities of stone, and began to form nations. The first wars and diseases afflicted it. The fourth, or Auka-Runa, an age of wars and warriors, saw increasing strife among people all over the earth. It was from the last stages of this period that the ruling caste of Incas appeared. These Ayar-Incas traced their origin to an emergence from "the cave of Pacaritambo" following a flood.
The dramatically varied creation stories that we have from this same Andean region lend additional dimensions to Guaman Poma's prehistory; they also refer to four serial creations. (For a good resume of Peruvian creation myths see Empire of The Inca, by Burr Cartwright Brundage; University of Oklahoma Press, 1963. See also South American Mythology, by Harold Osborne; The Hamlyn Publishing Group, New York, 1968. A facsimile edition of Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno was published in Paris, 1936, by the Institut d'Ethnologie. Several modern Spanish editions of this codex also exist. Runa is variously translated as 'man,' 'race,' 'humanity.') In them Viracocha, the supreme creative deity born from Chaos, whose father was the sun, first constructs the form and archetype of an early mankind but doesn't create a humanity proper. In a new effort as the god Cons, "he who appeared from the north and had no bones," Viracocha created a second, 'boneless' race. Cons was followed by Pachacamac who destroyed Cons' world in fire and flood and "transformed men into monkeys." After that, Viracocha as Pachacamac remade the creation and provided corn for a new humanity which, by seeking mountain peaks, providentially survived the great flood (uno pachacuti) that had destroyed Cons' former race of "evil and contentious men."
Five ages, or "suns," each having its own humankind, are enumerated by the ancient Nahuatl peoples of Mexico. A great cataclysm terminated each of the first four "suns," the last being destroyed by water. The Nahuatls believed themselves to be living in the fifth "sun" or present age, which they said would also end, but could give way to a new "sun" if men made proper sacrifice to the divine creator. Their sacred manuscripts describe third-age men who became monkeys.
To the north, the Hopi Indians of Arizona preserve a secret teaching that their ancestors 'migrated' through three previous worlds which were successively extinguished by ice, floods and great earth movements after their inhabitants turned away from the divine creator. Only a part of each former mankind survived: those who had not forgotten their divine nature, who remained humble and obeyed the law of brotherhood toward all creatures. The ones saved when the third world succumbed traveled eastward across the Pacific Ocean to a fourth world, the Americas. The Hopis say they are fourth-world people but that nevertheless they "have one foot in the fifth world." The Zunis, another southwestern pueblo Indian tribe, have the same general traditions as the Hopis, but regard themselves as now in that fifth world.
Turning to Middle America, an impressive and beautiful genesis story is found in the Popol Vuh or "community history" of the Quiche-Mayans of Guatemala. In this account the creative gods first construct primitive beings; but because these were "Unable to say our names," i.e., lacked awareness of themselves and their divine progenitors, they were unserviceable. A subsequent creation produced a 'man' of earth or mud, who could speak but had no mind, was unable to stand and kept falling apart. Unsatisfactory, this effort had also to be broken up. More intensive exertions by the gods resulted in a third mankind made of 'wood' and 'reeds.' These could live and multiply but had neither souls nor minds, "walked on all fours and did not remember their Maker." Although judged an improvement over the former, they were yet imperfect and so were largely done away with in a great flood. Some of the descendants of this humankind "are the monkeys which now live in the forest," who are "an example of a generation of men which were created and made but were only wooden figures" (i.e., they resembled true men but were empty of genuine thinking consciousness). A fourth age begins when the creative deities reassemble and call upon higher powers to help them fashion a true and viable human being. Their deep meditation and prayer result in a new type that is produced from "the dough of cornmeal." It can walk, talk, see and grasp things, and had an intelligence godlike in its scope: a fit being at last! Four first mortals of this kind were made. The Popol Vuh also tells of certain fourth-age individuals — brothers to another fourth-age race — who became monkeys.
From all this we can get an idea of the well-formed notion the Indians of the Americas had of their place in an immense serial creation of progressively improved human types, interrupted by divinely-ordained cataclysms that each time allowed a better mankind to survive and continue. We see an initial, archetypal, quasi-man followed by a second, 'boneless' or relatively ethereal race, which nonetheless had some mineral or bonelike material in its frame, symbolized by references to autochthonous men of 'earth' or 'mud.' A third evolution, much more like our own species but still lacking real self-consciousness, is then described. This is followed by a more fully conscious, thinking race that because of its misdeeds mainly perished in a flood. A new race of men, sometimes enumerated as the fifth, then emerges as our pre-historic ancestors.
The Indians' recitals converge remarkably with the modern theosophical perspective of man's development, In this philosophy the human species is stated to evolve through seven successive great stock-races, and is now in the fifth of these. Each such stock-race is associated with a geological era. The previous, or fourth, is symbolized in Plato's account of Poseidonis or Atlantis, but in fact refers to the Cenozoic era as a whole. The third, the Lemurian, corresponds to the earlier Mesozoic era of geology; while our present fifth race answers to the Pleistocene epoch of the last one or two million years. Because each of these stock-races is born from its predecessor, some of the peoples from the different geological humanities have lived side by side and mingled during long periods of time. [It is important the reader be aware that this article does not assign the Mesozoic, Cenozoic, and Pleistocene periods the enormous durations of years usually given them by modern geologists, who rely almost exclusively on radiogenic tests for that purpose. We use the time-periods employed by H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine. Blavatsky adopted the nomenclature for the geological periods devised by Sir Charles Lyell, the "Father" of geology. To this she applied a proportional calculation based on thickness of strata that was proposed by Professor Lefevre, which harmonized with occult data regarding the true age of the strata. Thus, the Pleistocene (Lyell's Quaternary) began about 1,600,000 years ago. The Cenozoic Era (Lyell's Tertiary), or that of Atlantis, began about 10-12,000,000 years ago; and the Mesozoic (the old Secondary) about 37,000,000 years ago (Cf. S.D., 2:693-711). These are the time-periods intended to be understood in talking of Atlantis and Lemuria, and the present fifth race. The latter was formerly identified by Western scholars as the Aryan peoples, but now is termed the Indo-European speaking peoples of the world.] This theosophical interpretation can explain why certain aboriginal Indian traditions emphasize a "fourth" and others a "fifth" world. Those, like the Hopis, who say they have "one foot in the fifth world" and, by proper living, can bring in "the other foot" as well, really are telling us that although their roots derive from the previous stock-race they have survived beyond its natural term into the present or Aryan world and so can in some important sense fully enter it. Others apparently by reason of more recent racial origin believe they are an Aryan or fifth-race stock.
Singularly enough, these traditions invariably assert that the relationship between man and simian or pithecoid is sequentially the opposite to the one proposed in the nineteenth century by Haeckel and Darwin. These savants theorized that man sprang from an ape ancestor — an idea that has never been proved true. In the Indian statement the simians are always the progeny of already-existing human beings, and thus are often called their "brothers" because of the portion of human blood in them. (The ancient American accounts, especially the Popol Vuh, corroborate with much precision the theosophical explanation that the monkey stock was produced in the Mesozoic era (about 20,000,000 years ago) from fruitful crossings between a then mindless or unself-conscious human stock with a high animal stock. The great apes were produced much later, in the Miocene of the Tertiary Period (about 3-4,000,000 years ago) — now termed the Cenozoic era — from similar unions between later simian stocks and self-conscious early hominids of the fourth race. For a good statement of this position, see Man in Evolution, by Dr. G. de Purucker, 1941. Since the great apes are not known in the Americas but monkeys are, in the Popol Vuh the references to both these simian evolutions are to monkey-like creatures.) This is reminiscent of the old Hindu tradition of veneration for the monkey kingdom and its hero Hanuman as being something higher than mere beasts as are the other animals. Some contemporary scientists now say the fossil record shows a hominid evolution older than the simian. The Finnish palaeontologist, Bjorn Kurten, recently wrote that "the most logical answer suggested by the fossil evidence is this: hominids are not descended from apes, but apes may be descended from hominids ." (Not from the Apes, p. 42, Pantheon Books, 1972) Dare we admit that aboriginal Americans may have known the true facts, which only now because of the failure of Darwinism and the testimony of the spade are receiving serious consideration by science?
The ancient American perspective of our past is manifestly grander and more logically appealing than any we ourselves have so far conceived. It is also thoroughly evolutionary, hence scientific. The Indian at the same time likewise had a strong conviction of the absolute necessity for right living and right action as the key to successful human progress in harmony with surrounding nature. His profoundly spiritual conceptions of life, the universe, and his relations to them are demonstrated again and again in his philosophy and culture. Only in certain few expressions such as the Aztec culture, which had degenerated into a bloody perversion of the earlier, pure emphasis on a life of self-sacrifice for the good of the race and the world, is this spiritual outlook lacking.
We have good reason to believe that the primeval American wise men knew that these serial humanities represented no more than facets in time and space — phases — of an immensely rich and complex evolution of the consciousnesses composing the solar universe. We, trying to comprehend their vision solely with our minds or intellects, all too often see but its shell and remain baffled by the terse, elliptical symbolism they used to record their cosmic insights. The Indian accounts can in fact be studied successfully only by means of our intuitions and awakened spiritual vision. It is not too much to say that until these faculties are brought by us into more active use generally, the theosophy formulated and lived by these remarkable peoples through long epochs can be neither fully utilized nor thoroughly appreciated.
(From Sunrise magazine, January 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)