living in the garden

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

when i was a child, i spent a lot of time in a town whose name struck me as odd — paradise. even at the time, i understood this was something like wishful-thinking. it was canada so we’re talking about a frozen wasteland much of the year where staying inside isn’t a choice as much as a necessity to avoid suicide-by-frostbite. but in the summer it was stunningly-beautiful in ways i don’t think i realized until i was much older. it is a place i now miss. but it’s the name i am thinking of particularly today. it has such a strong place in our history and culture, the notion of a perfect heaven. which is strange because there’s no such place and never has been. where did we get the idea of paradise and how did we as a culture become so fixated on someday living (or dying) there? of course, i teach writing and language so what interests me more than anything is where the word comes from. and it might shock you. it’s not from where you might think. it’s not even from the west. this word symbolizing the most ridiculous yet somehow overwhelming western cultural obsession for more than a thousand years — one that most people associate with christianity, the bible and an afterlife in the jesus-on-the-cross tradition — has its roots firmly in the east. that might not be nearly as surprising if you have studied the history of language. nearly all our language roots come from beyond the border of the indian subcontinent. our european languages were born in india and, in many cases, were born with a healthy dose of influence from the other side of the himalayas (though not specifically in this case unless there are some ancient chinese words for earth i’m not familiar with).

to start, the word “paradise” in its modern iteration realistically means “imaginary perfect place” but it has a sense of “protected garden”. this is interesting in many ways because that means it hasn’t shifted much in meaning in all the thousands of years since it first made an appearance. in vedic times, people believed earth was a walled-garden, protected by deities who expected obedience and veneration but in return guaranteed safety and happiness. the whole cultural notion of “the world” was something close to the story that much later became the genesis myth of the garden of eden but without the snake, the tree, the fruit or the rather awkward god figure being annoyed at a little fuckplay under the leafy canopy. ancient indian myth simply saw the world like a place where gods and humans interacted and safety and happiness came from willing coexistence. the subcontinent, not even close to a single nation at that point, was a loose collection of kingdoms and smaller pseudo-states, villages, cities with disparate rulers. their duty to the people, though, was seen as somewhere between taskmaster and guradian, intermediary between humans and deities but not the all-powerful we might imagine from an indian ruler today, looking back. these were much less absolute monarchs because they were restricted in their actions by cultural and social expectations — the gods demanded balance and making the gods unhappy was certain suicide. the world was a hard place to live but that was because humans weren’t very good at following the rules. it was as perfect as we could make it. and these people had a word for that — “पार्थिव” (par-thi-va) means “in the world” in the sense of “this is our earthly home”. their villages were the gardens they worked in every day thanks to the spirits they worshiped and venerated. it was the gift they thought they’d been given, not so much a planet as a safe place from an unknown outside. for thousands of years, this continued — there are other sanskrit variants from the same root, by the way, including “पार्थिवी” (par-thi-vi), loosely “of earth” like “we come from this place”, and “पार्थिव” (par-thi-va) that originally had the same context but eventually came to mean not only those from earth but a prince whose purpose was both to rule and protect the people in that place.

in time, though, these languages shifted and things became more specific as evolution occurred. let’s start at the beginning of the word’s trek to the west — old persian. for about a thousand years before the common-era and likely having its roots much more distant in time, what we now call “old persian” was spoken in modern-day iran (or, if you’re old enough, the nation of persia). this language isn’t nearly as old as it would need to be for this to be the real beginning (which is why we looked at sanskrit) but its roots are far deeper than just codified persian as its vocabulary, though little of its grammar, derives from the wandering tribes from across the region.

that explains the transmission of so many similar words but, by the time we get to the old-persian period, our word has become “paridaiza”, literally “pa-ri” (“around”, here we get “partition” and “parted” from), and “dai-za” (“wall”, oddly enough the root of our word “dais” and “daisy” but not “door”, which has an even stranger story).

at this point, the interpretation is more solid. it’s not just the implication of a protected space. it is exactly that, explicitly. ancient persian cities (if you’ve ever seen photographs of persepolis, this is a clear demonstration of the idea) were independent, walled places — not the low, agriculturally-useful walls of the subcontinent but protective, military fortresses holding back both the desert and the warriors from outside. the fortress was supplied by something loosely-analogous to an aquifer/aqueduct system of pressure-driven shallow wells linked to a water source — we’re talking about pre-deep-well days but they were definitely capable of irrigating their crops and the persian system was used as far away as greece and japan before newer technology deprecated it. so what you can have in mind is an oasis, a protected, walled garden where people could find food, safety and life in a harsh desert climate with nomadic marauders on the other side of the wall. in many ways, this was paradise in the modern sense. the persians might not have been perfect but, given the circumstances, it seems they certainly knew how to make the best of a bad situation.

from here, the word begins to float around a lot more. as persian trade took goods across the world, they encountered the other great civilizations of the time — the chinese to the east and the greeks to the west. the persians were actually the first civilization outside their own immediate area they ever encountered — and the only one they were prepared to pay much attention to. for centuries, the greeks traded and fought with the persians, eventually conquering them. but the persian languages (there were, in fact, many) had perhaps more lasting effects on greece and its children than greek culture had in return. greek, like aramaic and hebrew, borrowed vast chunks of linguistic material from ancient persia, acquiring not only the word “παράδεισος” (pa-ra-de-i-sos) but its complete meaning as both “protected, walled garden” and “perfect sanctuary from the outside world” — certainly an irony as the outside world coming to destroy and harm was, in fact, epitomized by the greek armies of conquest. greek cities, though, had walls, gardens, water and enemies of their own, though, so they were thankful for the concept.

greek passed the word and idea almost wholesale to latin as paradisus (from here on in, we’re talking about languages with latin alphabets so the pronunciation gets a bit simpler — “pa-ra-di-sus”. from latin, the path to english and other european languages is obvious. it became “paradis” (pa-ra-di) in french then flowed east to germany (“paradies” — “pa-ra-dis”) then back west to england (“paradise”).

but what happened to the idea? when paradise as a concept entered the contemporary vocabulary in the middle-east through aramaic and arabic, it became a very different thing — not a present reality but an ideal. these were areas where safe, walled cities weren’t the norm and living in the desert, traumatized by centuries of marauding and oppression, was was the expectation for daily life. add that to a culture of messianic afterlife-delivery and the notion of safety and a walled-garden seemed like something in the distant, deified past that we, as humans, could only hope for after death because it certainly wasn’t showing up in our lives. this meant the concept of “paradise” was mingled with that of “creation” in the genesis sense and “afterlife” in the jewish, arab and, eventually, muslim senses.

christianity is, practically-speaking, a modernized version not of post-messianic judaism with a revolutionary schism but a roman mystery-cult with a new figurehead and adopted scriptural past that’s summarily recited and ignored. from roman provincial rule, though, the language (latin) developed a mashup between the word “paradise” and the concept “heaven” borrowed from client states, primarily judea. the notion of a jewish mythical heaven or a bedouin afterlife in a walled oasis was transposed to a doctrinally-obsessive afterlife location for those who had earned it. what started as an indian “there’s no place like home” and became the persian “home is where the garden is” became the christian “i don’t think we’re in kansas anymore but it’s awesome as fuck”.

as christian culture gave way to modernization and ideas of afterlives and gods were finally, at long last, destroyed by scientific advances and people became more highly-educated, dismissing ancient mythologies for the population-control devices they were, especially state-organized christianity in the roman model, you might be tempted to imagine the word and its associated idealization of the afterlife and post-creation notions of gardens-and-falls would have fallen out of favor.

unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. the idea of paradise grew with the modern age as industrialization made life more and more painful and modernity carried a sense of daily overwhelm and self-imposed trauma through constantly being busy, overworked and focused on amassing personal property. culture stopped living in the garden and started living nothing than obsessive, competitive greed. so the idea of a walled, protected garden where competition was over, everything was safe and provided and life was no longer a series of necessities became more and more of a dream to escape to. with the hopelessness of applying education to the masses, there was nothing left of generalized understandings of science and notions of the afterlife persisted — people are still actually buried in the west as whole bodies, wasting land and resources as if the body is useful in a post-death sense and people are still, unaccountably, given a choice whether their internal organs are even permitted to be used after they are dead to save the life of a child desperate for help. paradise as an idea became more of an obsession as belief-systems were showed to be more and more false. it was something people grabbed and held tightly to the point they named their cities and dreams in its honor.

that’s the story, though. from the ancient sanskrit-speaking world of india to our materialistic, self-indulgent paradise-seeking culture today focused on an afterlife that can’t possibly come but unwilling to truly create a peaceful walled-garden life in this world because it would mean slowing down and having less. the word evolved as cultures devolved around it. this may be one of the most ironic tales of language through the ages. thanks for coming along on this journey with me. may you take a few moments today and see how you can build a paradise in your life, if only by simply choosing to be at peace rather than to do more, have more and experience more. may you be happier in a paradise of less. नमस्ते (“na-ma-ste”, “i bow to you”).

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.