Andean Matrix of Life

Atawallpa Oviedo

Andean worldview

Kuyay or Munay, which represents love, feelings, affection, emotions, and sensitivity, takes place in the Ukhu Pacha, or in the Womb of Mother Earth. The Yachay, which is intelligence and wisdom, takes place in Hanan Pacha or in the Vision of Father Sky. The union of the two produces life on the surface of the earth, thanks to the work of the two sub-worlds: the mother, container of life (Pachamama) and the father, maintainer of life (Pachakamak).

This manifestation is called Lulay, which is the act of laboring, cultivating, performing, moving, willing. This element does not involve making anything (ruway) because, in the Andean cultures, the concept of creating does not exist. Instead, they have the idea of recreating what has already been created. The Andean does not consider himself to be the producer or creator of anything (homo faber), but rather the cultivator (talpuy) of what he has been given in life (homo maietecus). He understands that the one who produces or creates a plant is not the worker or the farmer, but rather it is the rain, the sun, the earth, the wind… and the human being is only the promoter of it all. From this understanding comes the beginnings of the idea that the human being belongs to the earth (vitalist cultures), which differs from the idea that the earth belongs to man (unnatural civilization).

In the civilizing system, whose conceptual load (patriz) is mechanistic, they speak of homo faber and the idea that the one who manufactures everything is man and, therefore, he is the one that makes, and from this view, he can make and unmake nature, matter, human beings. And, in that sense, he is always making, and in that making he should improve, progress, and develop, so that everything continues to be better made. Whereas, for the Andean people, because of their vitalist approach to life, there is nothing to make, for everything has already been made. The only thing that has to be done is to guard the harmony and maintain the balance with the Great First Maker and Transformer of Life (Kontixi Wirakocha Pachayachachik), who is the one who makes everything, including human beings. This means that there are two possibilities for the human being: to stand at the service of life and continue the natural course (dynamic stability), or do it in his own way, dominating and subjugating nature (unlimited development). In other words, the human being is guardian, meaning, he is the guardian of all that he has been given by the Great Maker, that is the life established and defined by all the life in his group (to live in harmony and balance), or man improves it (he is the owner) within his beliefs of changing and transforming life (to live better and live well). For both purposes, the technology, the knowledge, and the systems are different.

From a horizontal view, life also develops with complementarity. Thus, for example, the human brain is made up of the rectilinear brain and the limbic brain, and from this symbiosis is born the neocortical brain, which handles the complements of logical reasoning (yachay) and conscious emotions. The same thing happens with the two hemispheres of the brain: the complementarity between the right brain (perception, intuition) and the left brain (reasoning, analysis). In the Andean world, they prefer to speak of the right or masculine side, which has to do with thoughts (yachay), and the left or feminine side, which is involved with feelings (kuyay). The balance and harmony between both (co-reasoning) makes possible an ordered and synergetic existence for all living beings and, in particular, for human beings.

In the same way, in the human body, Kuyay (love), which is the root, the Tree of Life, is located from the feet to the abdomen, and connects us with Mother Earth, who represents earthly love. The feet and legs are the part of the human that sits on the earth, and the abdomen, from which proceeds human life, is linked to the womb of the earth, which gives life to all types of beings on the earth (the feminine). Yachacy (Wisdom), which consists of flowers and fruits, and extends from the neck to the top part of the head, connects us with Father Sky, and represents cosmic wisdom. This is the human space where reactions, responses, or mental results are manifested with respect to life, from ignorance or unconsciousness to wisdom (the masculine).

These two qualities (feelings and thoughts) combine to manifest in recreation, in concrete and practical acts (lulay), which can be harmonious and balanced, or the opposite, in accordance with one’s level of love and wisdom (kuyayachay). The pre-classical Greeks paraphrase this kuyayachay (and, in general, all vital people of the world do so). The Greeks understood this concept in a similar way, and they called it “philosophy” (philos: love; sophia: wisdom), which is to say, the love of wisdom, or the wisdom of love. That is the great mystery for human beings: They need to be taught to love life (sumakawsay) again, in the natural and habitual way of nature and the cosmos. Lulay (work) would be the trunk and the branches on the Tree of Life. In the human body, from the navel to the heart, are the organs that are always working and in constant movement.

For the Andean people, only a person in the fullness of love (kuyay) and in wisdom (yachay) is able to recreate (lulay) life in a harmonious and balanced way, which is the destiny and challenge of human beings, or their mission in this state or expression of life. And vice versa: A being that does not have love and wisdom causes pain and suffering to life with his actions. We can apply these elements to any area of social life: economics, art, sports, politics, family, etc.

Therefore, Sumakawsay (the art of living) is supported by two pillars: Kuyay Kawsay and Yachay Kawsay, expressed or manifested through Lulay Kawsay. When we live lovingly and wisely, we are able to live together and recreate in harmony and balance with everything. These are the two Andean principles or “commandments,” which were distorted and twisted by the conquerors in their trinity of “ama shua, ama quella, ama llulla.”

Their ten commandments (don’t steal, don’t kill, etc.) were summarized in a group of three statements (trinity) so that they could be repeated dogmatically to the Andean people: “you shall not steal, you shall not be lazy, you shall not lie.” They cleverly twisted the Live Lovingly with their sinful view of “you shall not rob me and you shall not covet my wife or my possessions.” To them, to live wisely was based on the dogmatic belief of “you shall not lie and you shall not think about more than my god, my civilization, my science.” And the hard-working life, in their view, included their exploitative attitude of “you shall not be idle or lazy so that you may work my fields and make me rich.” In their eagerness to domesticate, evangelize, and civilize, the colonizers have continued to instruct us up to the present day, for nothing has essentially changed in these 500 years.

In this sense, it is important that the Andean people take up again the ancient principles of the Tawantinsuyu (the Incan state) and apply them to their daily lives, replacing the “ama shua, ama llulla, and *ama quella*” that were imposed on them by the colonizers. The two Andean principles, from whose intercommunication arises the third, are in the same love (shuklla kuyay), in the same wisdom (shuklla yachay) and in the same work (*shuklla *lanky). It can also be expressed in this way: with the same mind (shuk yuyaylla), with the same heart (shuk shunkulla) and with the same hands (skuk makilla). The expression “in the same love and wisdom,” refers to BEING (tiyay) connected to and infused with the same total love and with the same complete wisdom of life. In this way, we express and perceive that there is no separation among human beings and vegetables, animals, minerals, stars; everything is made of the same thing, that is, life or spirit, and is manifested in distinct expressions or interrelated realities.


The system of Sumakawsay or of the Wisdom of Life (vitalism) has many centuries of experience. The Andean people and, in general, all of the people from Amaruka (America) and from the entire world knew about it and lived it long before the Spanish invasion, in their own particular ways. It was practiced, especially, in the matrilineal era, where three things were lacking: the man of good (Adam) and the woman of evil (Eve), the patriarchal dictatorship of the parents over their children, and the democracy of some communities over others that disagreed. The matriarchal system currently continues to be practiced in certain Andean communities and families, as well as in various other places in the world, and even in some families of the West. Through the meeting (tinkuy) of people and communities in conflict, a resolution is sought to problems through common agreement, until all accept it and all of their minimum aspirations are satisfied.

The Spanish chroniclers also spoke of this Andean social system. The most interesting case is the one related by Pedro Cieza de Leon, who, in his work, Chronicles of Peru and the Lordship of the Incas, details the high level of social and economic organization achieved in almost all of their areas of life, a product of their intimate understanding of and relationship with the natural system. It discusses a very elaborate and harmonious system of life, which amazed the Europeans that read this book and which served as an inspiration to other intellectuals to propose a similar system for Europe, as the Frenchman Louis Baoudin puts forth in his book, The Socialist Empire of the Incas. The socialist utopians, including Owen, among others, were possibly inspired by the Incas to release their socialist theories, and certainly also the communist theories of Karl Marx were influenced by them, for in his writings he makes reference to the ancient societies from around the world.

Living together in Harmony (Vitalism) was not unknown to the ancient Europeans, for the ancient cultures native to Europe also functioned in holistic community systems, especially in the matri-patrilineal era of the solar and lunar societies (also called “primitive communism” by Marx), until the breakdown of matriarchy and the appearance of patriarchy (excess of production). Marija Gimbutas says, in reference to Europe, “We still live under the influence of that aggressive masculine invasion, and we are only beginning to uncover the long alienation of our authentic European legacy—the nonviolent culture of equality that was centered in the earth.”

There is a series of books that relates the knowledge of these ancient worlds and how they proposed to recover it. The Christian Bible talks about the idea of paradise lost, until the Golden Age of Greek and Roman mythology. The Republic of Plato presents the first literary-philosophical approach to the formation of an ideal community. During the Renaissance, Thomas More wrote his famous novel, Utopia (1516), in which he invented the term utopia, which would be mentioned later in the utopian socialist trend. Other literary utopias are The City of the Sun (1602, Tommaso Campanella), The Code of Nature (1755, Morelly),* The Social Contract* (1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau), Focion (1763, Gabriel Bonnot de Mably), and Atala (1803, Chateaubriand).

In this sense, after all of the experiments of patriarchal, separatist, hierarchical arrogance (slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism), it has become necessary to recover the Natural and Organic Harmonious System of Life (vitalism), known and assimilated by the grandparents in all of the corners of Gaia (Allpamama) for at least as far back as eight thousand years, when agriculture appeared. “It is customary to describe our remote ancestors (who lived on that wealth without looting it, as we do today) as poor and unhappy. They are described as suffering from chronic malnutrition and living on the verge of starvation. Nothing is further from the truth. On this matter, nowadays, the scientific literature is abundant and conclusive. M. Sahlins, in The Economy of the Age of Stone, has come to speak of the Age of Stone as an age of abundance and wealth.” (Javier Medina in Suma Qamaña)

For us, “It is interesting here to understand that philosophies of being, imposed by the institutions of the West throughout the planet in which we live, have completed their time, and that now is the hour to rethink the cultural, emotional, and rational niches from which we came. Latin America has carried a lot of rationality and logic, and many ways to live, feel, and be moved.” (Roberto H. Espoto and Sertio Holas, in “El ser y el estar,” included in Rodolfo Kusch: Towards a Postcolonial Condition of Thought From Given Epistemological Categories)

For that reason, it is essential and indispensable to understand what the Andean understanding is, to be able to try to define* Sumakawsay*. To approach the modern Western civilizing trends from the right or the left, from the profiteers or the liberals, is to fall again into the same error as always: to try to adapt or categorize the ideas of another world within a third. “Therefore, it is inappropriate and even absurd to try to approach the Andean culture and philosophy from the ideology of a ‘materialistic science’; Western reductionism is not able to understand the sapiential and scientific wealth of the Andean man.” (Andean Philosophy, Josef Estermann)

This is what we have lived for the past 500 years: the conquerors, ancient and modern, analyzing and interpreting as they please, Manichaeans of “good and evil,” and the Indians and natives, pointing out their “good intentions.” “Although the consequences… still have not arrived at physical extinction, forced slavery, or the formal exclusion of human rights, the strategies of academic philosophy against the entry of natives into the area of philosophical thought does not differ much from the reasoning of the first conquerors.” (If the South Were the North, Josef Estermann)

To try to speak of* Sumakawsay* without being familiar with the Andean wisdom is always a presumptuous, alienating, stereotypical practice. It is simply to continue the abuse and disregard begun by those who attempted to remove idolatry from the ancient Andean thought and feelings. It is the arrogant intellectual who is ignorant of the Andean tradition and, above all, who has not lived to internalize it in his innermost being, nor root it in his heart. “One cannot really know the philosophical thought of a people if one has never sat at their table, if one has not danced their dances, if one has not suffered with them.” (Andean Philosophy, Joseph Estermann).

Translated from Spanish by Alan Steinle