kālo ’smi loka-kṣhaya-kṛit pravṛiddho | lokān samāhartum iha pravṛittaḥ ||
ṛite ’pi tvāṁ na bhaviṣhyanti sarve | ye ’vasthitāḥ pratyanīkeṣhu yodhāḥ ||
‘I am mighty Time, the source of destruction that comes forth to annihilate the worlds. Even without your participation, the warriors arrayed in the opposing army shall cease to exist’ ( Translation taken from here)
So declares the great ‘Universal Form’ of the Lord in the Bhagavad Gita, when questioned by a visibly moved Arjuna, on who He was (BG, Chapter 11, Verse 32).
Robert Oppenheimer, the great Physicist is famously said to have quoted this verse, describing his reaction to the first Nuclear tests in the world. However, majestic though the verse is, it also contains a conundrum Hindus face with respect to the concept of time and the fatalist tendency inherent in this understanding.
In normal conversations, we can hear Hindus say, for example, ‘oh what can we do, its the Kali age’ , expressing helplessness or may be even unwillingness to do something about a situation, because well, it’s the Kali age and things are supposed to be bad!
The fatalists have in fact taken the over the narrative so much so, that they argue, the Kali or Iron age is 432,000 years in duration, and thus we have nothing to do except to live out our lives in the slow process of annihilation at the hands of forces of chaos.
Such a view is also often connected with the other fatalistic concept of Karma, the unchangeable arrow of events that is supposed to be unalterably set in motion once a being is born into the world. Together, this view holds that being born in a ‘bad time’, beings of ‘bad karma’ have little else to do but ‘live it out’.
However, the traditional understanding of time within the broader Hindu world is much more complex and layered, and far from being fatalistic, as the very next verse in the same Chapter of Gita quoted above says,
tasmāt tvam uttiṣhṭha yaśho labhasva |jitvā śhatrūn bhuṅkṣhva rājyaṁ samṛiddham ||
mayaivaite nihatāḥ pūrvam eva | nimitta-mātraṁ bhava savya-sāchin ||
‘Therefore, arise and attain honor! Conquer your foes and enjoy prosperous rulership. These warriors stand already slain by me, and you will only be an instrument of my work, O expert archer!’ ( Translation taken from same source quoted above)
The Lord is not telling Arjuna, that since the war has already been won by Him, Arjuna can sit back: rather, He is urging Arjuna to become a willing participant, an instrument in His work. This is a very profound message – that the God of the scripture will call upon man to participate in His work, is actually a very powerful and positivist idea.
In general, the Eastern understanding of time is very subtle, and perhaps is only matched by some of the most recent theories of modern science. That time is relative, is well recognized, and the fact that the scale of time need not be the same everywhere is acknowledged. The time of the Gods for example, is more the inner time of consciousness, and it is said, that they live for vast numbers of years on the human scale.
One day in the life of Brahma, the creator in fact so vast that at 4.32 billion years, it can fit in 1000 full cycles of human ages (maha-yugas). Essentially, this perhaps just reflects the fact that thought is more lasting than form; The consciousness that holds things together must be of a vaster essence than the material world which is an effect or manifestation.
It is pertinent that the Hindu view of the world is that of an inward-to-outward projection, rather than an outward to inward speculation: perhaps best exemplified by the late Vedantic view of ‘drishti-srishti vada’ , where the ‘drishti’ or perception itself is thought to project (‘srishti’) the perceived.
This is closer to the concept of ‘holographic universe’ that is increasingly being postulated as the best candidate to explain the physical world in the latest scientific theories (see).
It is also fascinating to note, that many traditional and indigenous religions across the world have viewed the world similarly, for example the ‘dreamtime’ of the Australian aboriginal people. Ultimately, a deeper understanding of the oneness and interconnected-ness of all existence and experience, is what underlies even the Hindu notion of multiple divinities, held together by a common thread, which the old Vedic seers called ‘Rita’. The Gita again has Sri Krishna saying:
mattaḥ parataraṁ nānyat kiñchid asti dhanañjaya |
mayi sarvam idaṁ protaṁ sūtre maṇi-gaṇā iva ||
‘There is nothing higher than myself, O Arjun. Everything rests in me, as beads strung on a thread’
(BG VII:7, translation taken from the same source quoted above).
Perhaps best described in Star Treks Holodeck , the Hindu view of the universe is a highly interactive hologram-like projection, where there is scope for the participants to alter their own ‘reality’. Gaining the status of an intelligent participatory agency seems to be the goal of the highest Eastern spiritual practices, such as the Siddha and Bodhisattva.
Ultimately thus, though there is an intensely fatalistic possibility in store for everyone, as specified by the ‘law of Karma’, this is only the purview of the ‘lower karma’. By achieving intelligent agency, a being can rise above the normal workings of Karma and can alter not only their own lives and fates, but also impact others positively.
Thus Time, essentially, is not always just monotonically ‘forward going’ with fatally pre-determined consequences, but rather it can also become a thrilling field of agency for the intelligent being and can be reversed or even stopped, just as a Bodhisattva Amitabha creates a Sukhavati where beings can work out their karmas outside of the normal time, or a rishi Vihwamitra creates a parallel heaven for his Trishanku.
The advanced and esoteric Hindu texts such as Yoga-Vaasishta and Tripura-rahasya in fact contain stunning accounts of time travel, subversion and reversion. These texts speak of worlds within worlds, where events unfold far slower than the outward ‘normal’ time, and returning from which, sometimes hundreds or thousands of years can pass. Nothing in these traditions is remotely fatalistic.
More recent investigations by scholars have shown that even the utterly fatalistic understanding of supra-human time-scales for the traditional time-cycles in Hinduism may be out of an error of understanding.
Drawing upon research by Sri Yukteshwar Giri as quoted by Paramhansa Yogananda, David Frawley for example, shows how we may be governed by a more reasonable 12000-year cycles connected to the precessional cycle of our solar system.
Quoting from Frawley’s work: ‘The historical dates that correspond to the four Vedic world ages (as given by Sri Yukteswar in his book The Holy Science, pp. 12-3) are as follows:
|Satya||11,501 BCE – 6701 BCE|
|Treta||6701 BCE – 3101 BCE|
|Dwapara||3101 BCE – 701 BCE|
|Kali||701 BCE – 499 AD|
|Kali||499 AD – 1699 AD|
|Dwapara||1699 AD – 4099 AD|
|Treta||4099 AD – 7699 AD|
|Satya||7699 AD – 12,499 AD|
So, not only a fatalistic reading of Hindu world-view a misunderstanding, even the assumed timelines may be a mistake!
To Be Continued In Part Two
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