ART-0102 Time, Hindu Ideas of

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‘Hindu Notions of Time’

I have always been fascinated by the infinite. My twin brother and I, as children of seven or eight, used to stand in our back garden gazing at the clear night sky. On those balmy autumn evenings, we’d pose the perennial question (asked by all of us at some time), ‘Just where does the universe end?’ We’d conceive of a fence or brick wall, beyond the visible stars. In our childish imaginations, we’d peep ‘next door’, only to encounter further space, receding relentlessly. We concluded that, in our cosmic suburbia, there must also be a ‘next-door-but-one’, and another vast space next to that, and so on, and so on, without end. Ah, how our minds boggled, unshackled by adulthood! No stuffy, dry, armchair philosophers we — no, we were feeling eternity. In vain, we tried to grasp it, but as it repeatedly slipped through our conceptual fingers, we knew — with certainty — of its existence.

And what of time (as opposed to space)? Dared we to look beyond these boundaries? At that age, death seemed so remote. Perhaps for this reason, we approached the matter from the opposite direction, talking of ‘those people who’ve not yet been born’ (for whom we felt a vague compassion). In retrospect, it was as if we felt that people existed before their birth — a perception that heralded my later belief in reincarnation.

Time passed (as it tends to do). I left the shelter of the family home for the less defined boundaries of boarding school. I did well academically and on one ‘speech day’, received three prizes. Each was a book, previously selected at a visit to the local town. I was particularly looking forward to one hastily chosen volume called, quite simply — and enigmatically — ‘Time’.

How disappointed I was! For, it talked not of time itself but of striped candles and floating pots with holes in them, and of rocker-arms and pendulums. Previously, I’d even tried to define time and to separate it (quite unsuccessfully) from the concept of space. And now, my new book threw no light on the matter. I read instead my other books — on fishing.

At school, the confined winter evenings would be brightened by the occasional film (for then we had no TV). I recall watching ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’. He encountered a cloud of insecticide — not even of the GM type — and began to ‘grow smaller’. He fought a heroic battle against the previously cute Tiddles (the family cat) and later, even more size-disadvantaged, wielded a needle against a hungry spider. Gripping stuff! Not so much that it rivalled ‘Gladiator’, but in that it confronted us with the infinite, the infinitesimal, and eternity; and how consciousness can exist (as, say, for the spider) on so many different levels and dimensions.

Fortunately, during adolescence, my body continued to grow. I entered university, read mathematics and became embroiled in the more intellectual aspects of the hippie counter-culture. I preferred philosophy to maths and soon found myself a practising member of the Hare Krishna Movement — a branch of devotional Hinduism hailing from Bengal. Even my previously outrageous dress (such as my yellow velvet flares) seemed mild when compared to my newly donned saffron robes.

Now, nearly thirty years later, I wear Pringle sweaters, live in Oxford and listen to Radio Four. However, despite my more conservative appearance, I still consider that my worldview is somewhat radical, more akin to the Hindu perspective than that generally held in the West.
For example, let’s return to our theme of ‘time’. Have you ever noticed how on radio and TV shows, academic and social experts repeatedly refer to our primitive past? Darwin can explain everything from our eating and mating habits to our religious rituals. It seems that evolution (through its own influence, perhaps) has secured its survival by becoming an undeniable and unquestionable truth. We could call it “a kind of sacred cow” (without wanting to disrespect the latter). Darwin’s theory and its corollaries (which often relegate Hinduism to a feature of our tribal past), demonstrate a belief that time is limited, linear, and progressive. Time started at some specific point, with singularities, big bangs and so forth; subsequently life moves constantly forward — from chemicals to monkey, from monkey to man, and from man to the stars. The underlying assumption is that we have never been so advanced as now (which, by chance, happens to be the time that I am living). I propose that this possibly flawed concept of time is central in underpinning our largely materialistic way of life.

Consider, for example, that wonderful phase ‘sustainable economic growth’ (it almost sounds religious, doesn’t it?). Can economic growth really continue without end? Can we move forever from one polarity towards the other without a change in direction? (Socrates thought not, and used this very argument to support reincarnation, holding that in the brief respite between bodies, we rapidly become sixty, seventy or eighty years younger).

I recall first hearing of the Pagan festival of Saturnalia, later replaced by Christmas. On hearing of the apparent meaning behind these festivities, I remember well the impressions I received. I brought to mind our forefathers many moons ago. It is just before the very first festival, with the nights growing relentlessly longer – and the days dangerously decreasing. Anticipating the imminent demise of daytime, the first astronomers mop the beads of sweat from their receding brows. Eventually, calculations reveal that the process has stopped – and even reversed! Relieved by their miraculous redemption from eternal darkness, our distant ancestors, whooping with joy, throw their clubs in the air and commence celebrations – probably by getting blind drunk (for keep in mind they were primitive.)

Now, anticipating sustainable economic growth is no less foolish than considering that the nights would forever continue to grow longer. Time is naturally cyclical, as evinced by the days and months, by our very breathing and by the rotating seasons. The Vedic (or Hindu) scriptures talk of greater periods from twelve years, through sixty, up to many millions. From the scientific perspective, we learned as children, of the ice age, and of the polar caps that expand and contract, repeatedly, cyclically. And eternally?

Well, we may conclude — quite reasonably — that everything will perish. The atom, this body, this earth, this universe, everything. And yet, the Vedas refute the idea of a final end to time. As one door closes, another must open. The Bhagavad-gita states, ‘For one who is born, death is certain, and for one who is dead, birth is certain.’ Similarly, after the demise of this material cosmos, another is created. In this way, there is an everlasting cycle of creation, sustenance and destruction, represented by the three functional deities of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Not only do Hindus hold time to be eternal and cyclical, as already discussed, but it is apparently degenerative, in the same way that we experience getting older, and not usually the opposite. Such a worldview not only validates the idea of a far distant glorious past (as expressed, for example, in the Ramayana and Mahabharata), but challenges the concept of uni-directional progress. Naturally, such analysis of progress depends upon our criteria, themselves determined by our specific values and mind-set. These days, many non-Hindus are also questioning our values based on technological progress; for example, whether our decisions on GM food be based wholly or largely on economic concerns, or equally (or even predominantly) on other criteria. Hindus hold that ultimate priority must be given to spiritual values. They also believe that this current age, the last in the perpetual cycle of four, is the darkest, typified by quarrel, hypocrisy and degeneration. Thus claims of progress may be treated with some scepticism. For example, scripture tells us that our present life began nine months before our birth, at the time of conception. Consequently, if we take into account the current average rate of abortions, our average life expectancy is considerably reduced — not an unreasonable argument from the Vedic perspective! If we apply these criteria, we could conclude that human society is devolving and that as human beings we are becoming increasingly retarded. Time, therefore, may be considered not only eternal and cyclical, but also degenerative.

Most of us are aware of how we cannot legitimately judge another’s religion through our own limited eyes, or against our own specific values. How relevant this is to the RE. world! We all need, theoretically at least, to understand the adherents’ predominant world-view, for then their ideas and practices are comprehensible. We may appreciate also the differences between the various religious traditions. For example, within an eternal, non-linear time frame, ideas of the exclusivity of one religious teacher, or one tradition, are hard to accommodate. Terms like ‘only’, “last’ or “best’ may be valid within specific boundaries, but lose all meaning in the context of eternity.

And yet, from the Vedic (or Hindu) perspective, it is not sufficient to have everyone neatly allocated to their temporary boxes – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc. (and acknowledging how great we all are.). For behind the plurality of religious expression stands a commonality. Traditions rooted in time and space, like everything else, will come, stay for some time, and vanish from our sight. Yet something endures, and that may be called religion (singular) or “spirituality”. If we talk of belief, opinion or world-view, we must accept diversity. If we talk of reality, then there is but one, perceived differently through our various imperfect mind-sets. The search must therefore be not for mere belief, but for truth and for a world-view that matches reality. In so doing, we must look not only out to the external world, but inwardly also – to our vast and often uncharted inner space – to be introspective and to reassess, “Am I seeing things correctly? Or is my lens distorted?”

I propose – and I am purposefully being confrontational here – that the concept of linear time does not conform to reality. But please don’t accept blindly what I say – (I’m confident that you won’t anyway). Ask your pupils, “Where and when did the universe begin? When will it end? And what thereafter?” Draw from their experience, before they too become constrained by belief, bias and taboo, and the idea that I belong to a specific family, country, or planet; or too a particular religion; or to a microscopic moment in cosmic time.

One disadvantage of the faulty concept of linear time is the idea that I can arrive, and simply put my feet up. Worse still is the notion, “I have arrived”. If we think, “I am a teacher”, then we are shackled by our own misconceptions. On the other hand, if we consider that “I am a fellow learner on the perpetual search for truth and self-improvement”, then we stand on the shore of eternity. As someone so nicely wrote, “No one can ascertain where the teacher’s influence stops”. Next time you have the luxury of some free time (highly unlikely if you are a teacher), perhaps spend a few minutes gazing at the stars.