The concept of eternal and cyclical time lies at the heart of the Hindu world view and is closely
related to the concept of atman. (Hindu sages claim that the individual’s self-understanding determines his or her perception of the world.) Hindus consider the real self to be ever-existing, not only in the future but also from the past. This notion of two-way eternity, however, is not reserved solely for the realm of spirit (Brahman) but extends to this temporal world. Within Hinduism we find no “year dot,” nor a final cataclysm. The closing of one door implies the opening of another. Destruction of the cosmos only portends its re-creation. The entire material world is thus subject to everlasting cycles of creation, sustenance and destruction.
This universe is said to exist for a lifetime of Brahma, the creator. His one day is 1,000 maha-yugas (great ages). Each maha-yuga consists of four yugas (ages), each progressively shorter and more degraded. They are the golden, silver, copper, and iron ages. According to tradition, we have had just over 5,000 years of Kali-yuga and there remain 427,000 years. At the end, the final incarnation of Vishnu, Kalki, is scheduled to appear, heralding the dawn of yet another golden age.
- The Hindu concept of time is cyclical (and eternal and degenerative).
- The Western notion of time is linear (and limited and progressive).
- There are four ages (yugas) that successively become more degenerated:
- Satya (Krita)
- We are now 5,000 years into Kaliyuga (the iron age, or the age of quarrel and hypocrisy.
The day, week, month, year, and greater cycles (e.g. ice ages) These may be useful in considering how time might be cyclical.
- The day is naturally cyclical, based on the Earth’s rotation.
- The Hindu week is seven days, and based on the same seven planets (Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn) as in the West.
- The Hindu calendar is based on real months (phases of the moon), as is Easter in the Christian calendar.
- The year is based on the cycles of the Earth round the Sun.
- Hindu texts mention greater natural cycles of 12 years, 60 years, etc. up to many millions of years. This may be compared to the familiar concept of recurring ice ages.
The Oldest Man in the World (STO-115)
Aeons are nothing compared to eternity.
Creation – adapted from the Bhagavat Purana (STO-116)
One of the best books on the subject of creation.
The Beggar Meets God (STO-117)
A humorous way into the subject.
- Scriptures are often not presented chronologically but sequenced so as to be spiritually and educationally beneficial to the reader.
- Tendency for inclusivity. Since absolute claims of uniqueness or pre-eminence lose credibility in the light of eternity, Hindus are generally happy to venerate figures from other traditions, such as Lord Jesus Christ (see right).
The largely accepted linear approach to time, has an impact on a wide range of issues:
- Material evolution theory
- Scientific creation myths (e.g. Big Bang)
- Attitudes towards material progress
- Sustainable economic growth (is it possible?)
- What are our thoughts on eternity?
- If the world began on a certain date, what happened before that?
- Why does time seem to go quicker as we get older? And when we are happier?
- “We never get any younger, you know!” Why not?
Widely-held academic views of ancient Indian history are uncontested and undoubtedly true
Hinduism’s own version of its history differs from the widely accepted academic view. Traditional accounts speak of a glorious past and descent from highly learned rishis (saints), conflicting with Western notions of emergence from a primitive ancestry. Furthermore, the Aryan invasion theory is now widely contested in intellectual circles and is challenging academia to reassess its assumptions about ancient history (see Versions of Hindu History and The Tradition’s Own Version). Whatever the current academic stance, teachers would do well to also represent the tradition’s own ideas of its history, which suggest a degradation in civilisation rather than a progressive evolution.
The notion of circular time inevitably leads to fatalism and procrastination in both material and spiritual endeavour. The concept of linear time is superior.
This misunderstanding may be closely connected with the simplistic and misleading idea that all of Hinduism can be categorised as “world-denying.” There are notions that the temporary becomes meaningful if linked to spiritual goals. Hence endeavours in this world bear lasting results if performed “in yoga” (e.g. through a sense of service to God.)
“By human calculation, a thousand ages taken together form the duration of Brahma’s one day and such also is the duration of his night.”
“Brahma lives … 311 trillion and 40 billion earth years”
Bhagavad-gita 8.17 purport
“Time I am, destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all men.”
Lord Krishna in Bhagavad-gita 11.32
Meaning and Purpose
What is time? Why do we fear it so much? What is its real nature? How does it benefit us?