Ciphers and Civilizations

By Blair Moffett

Imagine, if you will, a people who had a complex written language that suffered no major changes for more than a thousand years; whose cultural development and intellectual sophistication allowed them to conceive of periods of earth history embracing ninety million years and more. Imagine that this nation employed a civil calendar more accurate than the present Gregorian reckoning, adopted by Europe in the sixteenth century to repair the glaring inaccuracies of the Julian calendar in effect since 46 BC. Add to these the construction of great and beautiful cities having connecting roads, development of the plastic arts to a pitch as fine as any in the world, and the existence of a highly moral citizenry governed by law and good customs. Finally, imagine that this nation's thinkers employed the revolutionary mathematical concept of the zero or cipher -- without which you can't have a positional system -- in their calendrics and astronomical computations.

Neither the classical Greek nor Roman civilizations ever developed the zero. Just try mathematical calculation using Roman numerals! We take the positional system for granted, failing to recall that the zero was adopted by Europe only in the fifteenth century. Now, applying our own standards, would it be an exaggeration to describe our supposed nation as eminently civilized? But, such a nation has indeed existed. It is known to scholars as that of the Maya of Central America, whose peoples are said to have flourished in the northern areas of that region from before 1000 BC to about 1000 AD. Pierre Ivanof, a close student of the Mayan system of time reckoning, comments upon its superiority over our own:

The Mayans invented a solar "civil" year of 365 days. We know, however, that they made calendrical emendations and developed a more precise notion of solar time than that embodied in our own calendar. Thus, the true sidereal year (that is, the exact amount of time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun, as determined by the precision instruments of modern astronomy) consisted of 365.2422 days. In our Gregorian calendar -- making due allowance for leap years -- the year has 365.2425 days, while the year of the ancient Mayans numbered 365.2420 days. . . . we learn that the Mayans never ceased throughout the centuries to study astronomy. Their observations were recorded carefully and exactly on long strips of fattened bark rubbed with limestone and folded like an accordion. -- Mayan Enigma, pp. 86-7

Among other ancient nations only one, the Hindu peoples of the Indian subcontinent, is known to have developed a system of calendrics accounting for such vast periods of time. For computing the age of the earth and various geological and other epochs, as well as the age of mankind, the learned Brahman caste still employs a Tamil calendar derived from archaic astronomical data, known as the "Tirukkanda Panchanga" (cf. The Secret Doctrine, 2:49-51).

This calendar contains a calculation of something over three hundred millions of years for the age of the present earth since sedimentation occurred, and a period of somewhat more than eighteen million years since the first appearance of our mankind.

The Hindus are also the only older people besides the Mayans who are known to have employed the concept of zero in their mathematics. In fact, our culture obtained the zero only because Arab scholars in Bagdad in the seventh century AD translated a Hindu text on astronomy and thus rediscovered the zero. Subsequently, an Arab mathematical treatise employing it was translated into Latin, and lo! we gained this vital idea, although it did not come into general use in the West until many centuries later. A few Sumerian tablets show the faint beginnings of calculations based on a positional system, but no more.

By comparison, the ancient great Egyptian civilization recorded no period of time exceeding five million years, and their zodiac, used to reckon cycles of time, was only 75,000 to 80,000 years old. The zodiac of the classical Greeks has been shown to be only some 17,000 years old. Greek reckoning of time, as well as their zodiac, was thus even younger than that of Egypt. Evidently the perspective of the archaic Hindu and Maya thinkers concerning the true age of the earth was much more like that of our modern earth scientists!

When it comes to human history, however, our scholars hesitate and grow uncertain about man as civilized homo sapiens even as late as 10,000 BC, whereas Hindu savants routinely regard him as at least eighteen million years old -- and if we could read more of the Mayan historical records we might find in them a similar calculation. Only recently have Western investigators produced physical evidence pushing the age of thinking man back toward remote epochs. Ancient human fossils found by Richard Leakey in East Africa are "remarkably reminiscent of modern man," with a brain capacity considerably larger than that of other hominids, while the leg bones "are practically indistinguishable" from those of humans today. He places this evolved human at more than 2.5 million years ago.

The ancient Hindu and Mayan civilizations exhibit other interesting convergences. Hindu records say that a member of a great race which preceded ours, a highly-developed personage known as Asuramaya, learned all the basic cosmic cycles and used his knowledge to determine the durations of the various geological and cyclical periods of human evolution. The chronology and computations of their still used Tamil calendar, say the Brahmans, are based upon the works of Asuramaya and upon carefully maintained collateral zodiacal records. Their most ancient extant work on astronomy, the Surya-Siddhanta, says that Asuramaya lived toward the end of the Krita-yuga, a former age that ended approximately 2,165,000 years before the present. This would place Asuramaya at something less than 2.5 million years ago.

The name Asuramaya is a compound of the two Sanskrit words, Asura and Maya. The personage himself is Maya, the prefix Asura signifying that Maya was of the Asuras, a name given to a certain caste or people of the great prehistoric race that preceded our own, or Aryan humanity. The word Asura derives from surya, Sanskrit for the sun. In accordance with the archaic Indian manner of describing the matter, the astronomer named Maya was said to have gained his knowledge from studying the sun. The sun and its encircling planets also occupied the central attention of the Mayan astronomer caste in Central America.

Although we do not have sufficient information to connect this ancient Indian astronomer directly with the Mayas of the early Central American civilizations, the similarity of the names is, on the surface, an intriguing one. It becomes more so in light of the rather striking similitude between the astronomical knowledge, mathematics, and time-reckoning systems of the two cultures. We know very little as yet about the origins of pre- and protohistoric peoples, about their secular migrations and the likelihood of prehistoric links between them. Such links are quite within the range of possibility even though unsuspected by some modern scholars, and it ill behooves us to make less than the fullest use possible of what facts we have in the effort to unravel our true evolutionary background. We do know that as far back as human tradition reaches, even to Cain and Abel, the first sons of the Biblical Adam and Eve, wherever man went in the world he found other peoples there before him, other races, with whom he fought or accommodated himself, as the case may be.

The early Hindu thinkers visualized the passage of a race from its birth to its close as embracing four distinct phases or yugas, and they said that races overlapped each other in duration. According to their calculations, the world, in other words our present race, entered the fourth of its phases, which they term the Kali yuga or Iron age, in the year 3102 BC. This event coincided with the death of Krishna, whom they describe as an avatara or incarnation of a lofty divine-spiritual being or messiah. His departure from the earth is said to have ushered in new and different conditions affecting our race.

Modern students of the ancient Mayan numerical glyphs have found that the dating of major series of events noted on Mayan stelae invariably give such reckonings in terms of the time elapsed since a date known as 4 Ahau 8 Cumhu. They know that for the Maya chroniclers this date represented a commencement point in time-reckoning of such awesome magnitude that it was central to all else in subsequent Maya history; but they don't know what it meant or why it was so important to the latter.

These students differ among themselves as to what the exact year 4 Ahau 8 Cumhu signified because of persisting uncertainties of numerical glyph interpretation, but they all agree that it occurred in the fourth millennium BC. That year has been variously given as 3135, 3113, 3373, and 3632 BC. At present the year 3113 BC is considered the most reliable of these. Remember that the specialists may yet be somewhat off in having settled upon this last date as the year in which that still mysterious event occurred which represented such an all-embracing starting point for later Maya time-reckoners. But, in view of the other similarities, its use by the latter as a date of the highest religious importance to their race, as well as its close coincidence with 3102 BC, a date of tremendous spiritual significance to the Brahmans and other orthodox Hindus, is rather amazing.

Our present humanity, sometimes called the Aryan, had its origins in central Asia, somewhere in that now barren region to the north and west of the Himalayan chain looking down upon modern India to the south. Early Aryan peoples went forth from this region in all directions. So far, however, they are most clearly traced going westward into what is now Iran and the surrounding zones of the Mid-East, and to the south where they became the forebears of some of the historical peoples of India, Ceylon, and southeast Asia. The Hindu nations of the historical period thus are direct descendants of the earliest peoples to compose the present world "race." Their records show them encountering and conquering other peoples as they went south into the subcontinent. It takes little imagination to conceive that in the course of this trek they could have acquired astronomical knowledge from remaining representatives of the high Asura caste of the great astronomer Asuramaya. The area even of present-day Tamils includes southeast India (Madras state) as well as the north and east of the island of Ceylon lying south of the mainland.

If this could have taken place, then why couldn't similarly learned caste groups among the ancestors of the Central American races known as the Maya have also derived their advanced astronomical system from the same source -- Asura wise men and astronomers such as the personage named Maya the Asura? But in part we cannot answer this question very definitely because to this day (1973) the narrative glyphs composing the written Mayan records remain unreadable. Only the numerical portions can be deciphered, and little is as yet known about the longer time periods these refer to. If the relatively voluminous narrative records accompanying the time glyphs could be read, there is good reason to believe they would shed valuable light on archaic events associated with the recorded time cycles, and therefore upon the early history and possibly even the origins of these advanced peoples.

The evidence of both Central American archaeology and the Mayan peoples' accounts of their own origins suggests an emigration into that region by already advanced races much more strongly than it does an indigenous evolution from a supposititious cave existence. Formerly archaeologists regarded the Mayan culture itself as the earliest horizon of sophisticated Central Americans. But a more recently discovered, even older people, the Olmec, appear to have lived from the lowlands facing the Gulf of Mexico to as far west as the Pacific mountain ranges of Guatemala. Comparison of stone and jade artifacts of the latter-day Aztecs flourishing at the time of the Conquest with those of Maya predecessors and the earlier Olmecs shows no degradation in style or workmanship. In fact, the Olmecs appear to have arrived on the scene in full-blown possession of sophisticated cultural achievements. Among these was use of the advanced numerical glyph system, thought until recently to have been a later invention by the Mayas themselves. Archaeologists now readily admit they have no idea where the Olmec came from. What is apparent here is a direct line of evidence of high mathematical, astronomical, artistic, and engineering achievement going right back to prehistory. This presupposes a fairly lengthy development somewhere: it obviously is not the product of primitive cave men. We tend to forget that cave-dwelling groups of undeveloped peoples have always been found -- and are found today -- living alongside the great civilizations of every period. So that cave men do not necessarily form the link in a linear chain of human development that they have been said to represent.

The Spanish narrator Bernal Diaz del Castillo recorded that Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, told the conqueror Hernan Cortez, that his ancestors had been conducted to Mexico by a ruler, whose vassals they were, and who having established them there as a colony returned to his native lands -- termed Aztlan -- to the East. The Mayan peoples of Chiapas gave another early commentator, the priest Francesco Saverio Clavigero, a similar account of their origins: following the Flood, a personage called Votan had brought their ancestors to Central America as groups of immigrants in successive voyages from the East. Votan, they said, was responsible for constructing large cities in Central America and also for establishing three tributary monarchies there with capitals at Tulan, Mayapan, and Chiquimala. All this points to a remote entrance onto the American continent of already advanced societies.

The greater number of archaic Sanskrit records have not yet been translated into Western languages. Even so there is a large body of already translated works, and Hindu scholars exist who are able to interpret their meaning as well as undertake further translations. The wanton destruction by Spanish conquistadores of every Mayan manuscript they could lay hold of, however, has left us with only a handful of primary Mayance-language documents. Rapid killing and decimation of the learned Mayan caste groups by these same Spaniards leaves us with no one capable of translating or interpreting them. Moreover, Mayan stone inscriptions are being destroyed in situ at an alarming rate by adventurers who withhold knowledge of new jungle finds which they saw up, without regard to their historic and archaeological value, and then sell as individual artifacts to private art buyers.

A major problem could develop from attempts by our scholars to interpret any newly-deciphered glyphs. Some effort might well be devoted to a search within present-day Mayan communities for any persons trained in the reading of the classic glyph language. This could prove far from easy of accomplishment, however, even if such a person or persons still live. The Mayan interpreter would first have to be willing to divulge what for him and his society must be sacred knowledge to descendants of that race which so brutally subjugated and despoiled his own. It is true that in recent years some similarly trained representatives of North American Indian societies have given out certain portions of their people's sacred history to members of the European race, but this has been an unusual occurrence, and there remain enormous if intangible barriers to any full inter-culture communication.

There is every likelihood that the Mayan representative would share the belief of his northern brother that real knowledge -- as contrasted with merely superficial data -- is a sacred patrimony conveyable only to those among his descendants who demonstrate that they merit receiving it: that is, whose inner strength of character and way of living assure that this information will not be misused or abused. Is it conceivable that -- if he still exists -- such a Mayan can at any time since the Conquest some five hundred years ago have decided it were at last possible to pass on his people's ancient mysteries to the white invader, much as an Asuramaya may have done so long ago with members of the then-new Aryan immigration? The critical element governing such a transmission could well be the Mayan's assessment of the European's true motives for desiring that knowledge and of the whole range of possible uses to which the latter might put it once obtained. At present all that may be said is that the several convergences between ancient Mayan and Hindustan cultures brought out above only highlight the great gaps in our actual knowledge of what must have been for both peoples a racial history of epic proportion.

(From Sunrise magazine, January 1973. Copyright © 1973 by Theosophical University Press)

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