Seeing the World Through a Different Lens

Comparing Western and Indigenous Views of Reality, Philosophy, and Divinity

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

This article is the first part of a 2-part series of articles about non-western philosophy. I want to write this series of articles to give readers a look into how other cultures throughout history have viewed reality, morality, philosophy, and the divine.

Dualism vs Monism

Western philosophy is rife with dualities, and duality is what separates Western philosophy from Asian and indigenous philosophies. Some examples of duality that come to mind are good and bad, right and wrong, hot and cold, left and right, and day and night. In each of these examples, there are two polarities of a certain phenomenon and a place more or less in the middle of them. It would thus be odd to say that something is both hot and cold at the exact same time. This is because we hold duality very close to our hearts in Western culture. However, not all human cultures throughout history have subscribed so closely to the notion of duality; in fact, Western culture seems to be the only one that does so. In this article, I will describe how in Aztec philosophy there was a much greater focus on monism and how monism is an integral aspect of the Aztec’s view of the divine.

I hadn’t ever heard the term “monism” or “monistic” at all before taking classes on non-western philosophies, so let me explain: monism is the idea that the universe, or better, reality, consists of just one divine entity. There exists only one thing, and we are all a part of this one thing. There is no subject-object separation between me and you, me and my dog, or me and God. The Aztecs had a name for this one divine entity: Ometeotl.

Ometeotl: The One True Divine

Ometeotl, or teotl for short, is the name the Aztecs give to their notion of the divine. Teotl is not a god or a being or anything like that. Rather, it is everything that exists in the universe, tangible or intangible. It would be incorrect to say that everything exists in teotl, because that implies that this “everythingthat you’re talking about is different from this teotl thing (aha, caught with another duality!). The better way to say it is that everything is teotl, and that teotl is everything. In this sense, differences don’t exist. Everything is one, as the saying goes.

Looking at the universe in this way means that I am not different from my friend Jamie, the chair that I am sitting on, the dog barking in the distance, the molecules in the air, or the stars in the sky. Now, you may immediately think “wait…I’m obviously not the same as my iPhone, so this is B.S.” However, if you’re thinking that, just hold on a sec — there are many ways to look at this. You can take a scientific approach and claim that every bit of matter on the Earth has always been here, but just has evolved and transformed into different living or nonliving things over time. If you accept this, then you can safely say, with some astonishment, that you and I are made of the same stuff that dinosaurs were made of. Are we all one yet?

You can also say that you are just one part of the entire human species. In that way, you are just a singular part of the one human species. You can even say that you are part of the Earth on which you are standing. You are not special or separate from the Earth; rather, you are just a unique part of it. The last way you can look at the universe as one divine entity, just as the Aztecs did, is by looking deeper at what I touched on at the beginning of this article — polarities.

Comparing With our Western Views

We have already seen that in the West, it is easy to view everything in terms of two opposites (like light and dark and right and wrong). However, have you ever stopped to wonder why you see everything in twos? Is it just as sensible to say that lightness and darkness as just two different manifestations of one phenomenon? Could you safely say that right and wrong are just two opposites of one phenomenon that we call morality? The Aztecs would call that one phenomenon teotl. For the Aztecs, we are all various parts of teotl, and thus we are all part of the divine.

I tend to like this view of the divine more than the western, Judeo-Christian sense of the divine. In the colloquial Judeo-Christian view of the divine, we often see ourselves as separate entities from the almighty, all-powerful God who resides on the other side of the universe, very, very far away from us. Praying to this God is like sending a letter to a faraway destination without even knowing if your letter was even postmarked, let alone received. The Aztecs would say that it is easy to feel lost in a universe in which you are separate from everyone else and from the very source of all things. It is easy to feel terribly alone if you believe that you are separate from the divine that all things, including you, are a part of.

The Aztecs would say that as humans, we are simply unique manifestations of the one divine teotl. While each one of us may be unique paint strokes of teotI, there is nothing inherently special about being human that puts us in a position of power above the rest of nature. I find it both humbling and comforting to think that I am not special, that I am not alone in this universe. Is it not refreshing to hear that you are sacred? Seeing ourselves as integral parts of nature, and not separate from nature, is a very different view than what many of us may be used to. However, I highly encourage you to take a moment and ponder what it means to actually be nature. I find it quite awe-inspiring, and maybe you will too.

I hope I have done a good enough job of allowing you to dip your toes into an alternate way of looking at yourself, the world, and the divine. Remember, for the Aztecs, those three things are one and the same :) I will be publishing a companion piece to this one that describes common themes in the major Asian philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. You may find the similarities between Aztec Philosophy and Asian philosophy quite striking.

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Cole Fitter

Cole Fitter

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Thanks for stopping by! You are at the intersection of philosophy, mindfulness, and social justice :)