8/6/2010—I wish my readers could watch the sun come up at Machu Picchu, as I was privileged to do last week. The wisps of clouds catch fire as the burning disk peeks over the surrounding mountains, blinding the viewer until finally the Temple of the Sun is illuminated.
The feeling that I experienced was not simple awe. When I visited Niagara Falls, the power of the water was enough to refresh me. Machu Picchu is different. Machu Picchu is a human creation that somehow participates in the power of the sun. I felt the sacred energy of the place in its graceful placement of exactly carved stones paying homage to the sun.
The Inka were not democratic. Only a handful of persons would ever see Machu Picchu, which was so isolated in the Andean mountains that when it was abandoned, there were not even rumors to alert the Spanish to its existence.
But, as Daniel Quinn writes in his novel Ishmael, at the time of the European invasion, the peoples of the Americas were conducting experiments in the creation of what we would now call sustainable, large scale civilizations (there were nine million people in the Inka empire). The empire was not democratic, but neither was it brutal and exploitative. As a functioning social system, the Inka world seems to compare well to the European systems that replaced it and all other indigenous societies.
So, when at Machu Picchu, Cusco, Puno, the sacred valley, the desert outside Paracas, I experienced the power and spirit of the world of native peoples, I was not romanticizing a hunter-gatherer existence, but observing the remnants of a vibrant, sophisticated and spiritually alive way of life.
It is a way of life that the people of Peru are today reclaiming for themselves. Unlike the French and English, the Spanish actually did mix with the native people they conquered. Most Peruvians are mixed descendants of the builders of these sites. Many people I met in Peru intend to revitalize the Inka world in a way that participates in the modern global era.
That way of life was not supernatural exactly. The Inka worshiped the snake, puma and condor, but as representations of natural powers. (That is not exactly right since the condor represented life after death). I remember one day watching a carving of a puma for an hour and seeing it almost move.
The great flaw in modern secularism is its inability to imagine a spiritually refreshing, economically equitable, environmentally sustainable alternative to today’s consumption capitalism. We cannot be Inka but they can remind us that there once was such an alternative.