Thursday, March 21

Apocalypse soon?

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LAST week I went to see the movie 2012. As a disaster flick it was great.

The computer graphics and special effects artists were having a field day. As expected, it was fast moving and, befitting its ‘end of days’ theme, the disaster scenes were spectacular.

The climax was the sight of Mount Everest, the highest peak on this planet, being smashed by giant waves.

Before that, the ominous dark clouds of dire portent had been gathering and while the world (at least those in the know) was getting more frantic by the hour, the Buddhist monk in a lone monastery on the lofty height of the majestic mountain was a picture of calm itself. However, the end when it came was quick and even the serene abbot had to shift sharply to ring the bell of warning. A very futile gesture I would have thought. Anyway he was barely able to ring twice and that was that. The end of the world had arrived!

Before you lose too much sleep over it (one of my friends was depressed for days after watching the movie), let me stick my neck out and say that the world is not going to end on Dec 12, 2012. So hold onto your job, keep up your mortgage payment, do your daily exercise and continue to pursue your dream — there is life after 2012. I am so confident about this prediction that I am willing to wager one billion dollars on it. You know the deal — if the apocalypse does not come, you pay me and if it does, I’ll cough up.

It was just a fantasy movie, a good one too and good for a laugh. The premise for the prediction of the end of the world in three years’ time was dubious.

It was a mixture of facts and a lot of fiction. It was long on conjecture and short on science. It drew its title from the fact that the Mayan Long Count calendar ends on Dec 12, 2012.

So what is the Mayan Long Count calendar? The calendar was constructed by an advanced civilisation called the Mayans who ruled the roost in South America from 200-900 AD. At its zenith the Maya empire stretched around most parts of the southern states of Mexico and reached down tothe current geological locations of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and some of Honduras.

With their awe-inspiring architecture and sophisticated concepts of astronomy and mathematics, the Maya was undoubtedly one of the great civilisations of history. Then almost in an instant, this sophisticated society, which at its height boasted a population of over 20 millions, imploded. They just deserted their magnificent cities leaving all their intricate building structures and impressive pyramids to be claimed by the jungle. To this day, their sudden demise remains one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of our time.

The Mayans used many different calendars, many of them approximate in length to our Gregorian calendar. However, over and above the small cycle calendars, they also had the Long Count calendar. It is ‘long count’ in that it takes 5,126 years to complete one cycle. Mayan society was steeped in religious rituals and they viewed time as a meshing of spiritual cycles. While the calendar had practical uses, such as social, agricultural, commercial and administrative tasks, there was also a very heavy religious element. Each day had a patron spirit, signifying that each day had a specific use.

The fact that the Long Count calendar takes 5,126 years to complete one cycle is just a matter of mathematics.

The Maya used the numbers 13 and 20 at the root of their numerical systems. The base year for the Mayan Long Count starts at “0.0.0.0.0”. Each zero goes from 0-19 and each represents a tally of Mayan days. So, for example, the first day in the Long Count is denoted as 0.0.0.0.1.

On the 19th day we’ll have 0.0.0.0.19, on the 20th day it goes up one level and we’ll have 0.0.0.1.0. Mayan artifacts unearthed by archaeologists show that their calendar stops at 13.0.0.0.0.

This represents 5,126 years on our calendar. Experts worked out that the Long Count start date of 0.0.0.0.0 corresponds with Aug 11, 3114 BC. That makes the Long Count last day Dec 21, 2012.

The Mayan never claimed to predict the end of the world. Even if they did, from their own history, it can be seen that they were not very good prophets. They did not foresaw the end of their own civilisation which came quite suddenly. However, mythologists and Doomsday theorists, as is their wont, are ever ready to pounce on any significant date for them to spin their tales of end of days.

The point is that man has been obsessed with the concept of the apocalypse (end of the world) since time immemorial. It has been the topic of many a sermon, film, biblical passage, mythological construct, expressions of many religious faiths and philosophical discussions. At a more earthly level, it is evidenced by the appearance of men bearing the placard ‘Repent! The end is nigh’.

In the past, the prediction of the sudden end of the world has been primarily the exclusive territory of religion. Science, though also points to similar calamitous denouement, tended to place it at some time millions of years hence. Of late the growth of awareness of global warming has brought the doomsday scenario much closer, perhaps even within our lifetime.

So, whether from the point of view of the religious faithful or the objective scientist, prospects for the future of our world do not seem bright. The main difference is that till recently science has placed the responsibility of the world’s demise out of man’s hands, describing it as a cosmic inevitability that we could no nothing about. Now scientists tell us that the way we live is negatively impacting the climate of our environment, which if it remains unchecked, will lead to disaster. Now, for the first time, religion and science both agree that man is to blame for the state we are in.

Ironically, it is this realisation that we are responsible and at the same time can be the architects of our own salvation that brings solace to an otherwise depressing situation when we contemplate the end of days.

While religion demands that we repent individually, science is urging us to act collectively. Either way, it is within our means to respond positively, correctly and nobly to an impending disaster which should bring us comfort and hope.

The men with the ‘Repent! The end of the world is nigh’ placards may not be that silly after all. Whether we meet our end individually on our own or collectively as a species, the message remains true. There is much we have to repent for personally and collectively. The good news is that there is always time to do so.

For those who are driven to depression and contemplation of suicide by all the talk about the end of the world, let me share this view from a wise man: “To meet our end collectively in an apocalypse is not necessarily a bad thing.

Though we loathe to talk about it, death is the inescapable fate of man.

Dying alone is perhaps a worst fear than death itself.

The plausible possibility of an apocalypse at least provides the comfort of knowing that we will certainly not be alone. It would be an event shared by billions of others at about the same time.”

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]