In general, the conceptualization of time in Indian religious and philosophical thought is framed by a dichotomy between the phenomenal world and absolute transcendence—that is, the realms of time and the timeless. The former, the sphere of contingent temporality, is usually understood to be the world of suffering, of change and impermanence, of what is known in Sanskrit as samsara. The latter is the realm of God or the divine, the transcendental realm of changelessness and release from suffering (moksha or nirvana). While the Indian tradition does not, as was once thought by Westerners, entirely devalue the this-worldly (concerned with things in this world, as opposed to a future existence after death), the ultimate goal of all of the religious traditions that have sprung forth in India is indeed to overcome and transcend time and the death it entails.
As opposed to modern notions of the progressive nature of time, traditionally in Indian texts time is envisioned as degenerative and entropic. Such a viewpoint on the nature of cosmic time goes all the way back to the early Vedic cosmogonies where the universe is said to have been created by a god (Purusha, the Cosmic Man, or Prajapati, the "Lord of Creatures"). The work of creation, however, was defective. The creator "emits" from himself the creation, but in this cosmogonic move from primordial unity to multiplicity and diversity the product is characterized by disconnection, confusion, and disarray. The very parts of time are, in their original state, created in a "disjointed" manner: "When Prajapati had emitted the creatures, his joints became disjointed. Now Prajapati is the year, and his joints are the two junctures of day and night, of the waxing and waning lunar half-months, and of the beginnings of the seasons. He was unable to rise with his joints disjointed" (Shatapatha Brahmana 220.127.116.11).
The "natural state" of time is here mythically represented as discontinuous and chaotic. The point of such Vedic myths of origins is to represent God's cosmogonic activity as faulty—creation here is not cosmos. The universe, as it was in the beginning, is in need of repair. Vedic ritual activity was performed to continually "heal" a world that was created defective and perpetually tends toward its natural state of disjuncture. The ritual was conceived as a connective, reparative activity.
With the Agnihotra [the twice-daily sacrifice performed at dawn and dusk] they healed that joint [which is] the two junctures of night and day, and joined it together. With the new and full moon sacrifices, they healed that joint [which is] between the waxing and waning lunar half-months, and joined it together. And with the Caturmasyas [performed quarterly at the beginning of the seasons] they healed that joint [which is] the beginning of the seasons, and joined it together. (Shatapatha Brahmana 18.104.22.168)
Such is the power of human ritual activity, but the natural tendency to entropy, to return to the "natural" state of discontinuity, requires that human's continually reinvigorate time through ritual.
This vision of time as perpetually degenerating, encoded in the earliest texts of the Indian tradition, continues in one form or another to the present. By more or less the turn of the Common Era, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions had all accepted the notion that time, now measured in incomprehensibly long cycles, is constantly replicating, at the macro-cosmic level, the process of birth, aging, and death that characterize the life of humans. Furthermore, time (and everything in it) was also seen as indefinitely recycled. The conceptualization of the cyclical nature of time, together with the idea of entropy, characterizes the basic understanding of temporality in the Indian context.
The assumption of transmigration and rebirth, already appearing in the middle centuries of the first millennium B.C.E., had both micro-and macrocosmic applications. Just as souls were perpetually reborn, so was the universe and time itself. The Sanskrit name for this theory is samsara, a word that literally means, "to wander or pass through a series of states or conditions." Samsara describes the beginningless and endless cycle of cosmic or universal death and rebirth; all of phenomenal existence is thought to be transient, ever changing, and cyclical.
Cosmological time in the classical texts of Hinduism is measured in units ranging from the infinitesimally short (the "particle" or atom of time called the truti, the "moment" or kshana, and the "eye blink" or nimesha) to the unimaginably long (the life span of the god Brahma, reckoned at 4,320,000,000 human years, according to one method of calculation). Within this framework are large units of time called the "eons" or yuga s (which further combined into even greater periods called "great eons" or mahayuga s). The first of these is the "Golden Age" or krita-yuga, which lasts for about 4,000 divine years (each divine year is the equivalent of 360 human years), a period of happiness and great virtue. The next two eons, the treta and dvapara, are both shorter (3,000 and 2,000 divine years, respectively) and increasingly worse as all things, including life spans and the human's capacity for spirituality, decrease. The process culminates in the last and "dark" or kali yuga, which is identified always in these texts as the present age of utter degeneration. At the end of this final eon (which lasts 1,000 divine years), the world will end in a cataclysmic apocalypse. After a period of dormancy, the universe will be recreated and the process will begin again … endlessly.
In mythological terms, the cycle is said to involve the fall from a Golden Age of happiness and righteousness. Such a fall is sometimes attributed to the arising of greed and desire, which, together with hatred and ignorance, form the fundamental roots of negative karma, which keeps souls entrapped, and constantly circling in samsara. But it is, according to some theories, the simple "power of time" itself that results in the fall from grace in the "Golden Age":
In the beginning, people lived in perfect happiness, without class distinctions or property; all their needs were supplied by magic wishing-trees. Then because of the great power of time and the changes it wrought upon them, they were overcome by passion and greed. It was from the influence of time, and no other cause, that their perfection vanished. Because of their greed, the wishing-trees disappeared; the people suffered from heat and cold, built houses and wore clothes. (Vayu Purana 1.8.77)
The cyclical nature of time entails not just an inevitable degeneration of time, with the resulting decrepitude of moral sensibility and the increase in evil and suffering; it also implies an equally inevitable return to the Golden Age as the wheel of time turns once again. The righteous will survive as the seeds for a new and better cosmic era:
In the Kali Age, men will be afflicted by old age, disease, and hunger and from sorrow there will arise depression, indifference, deep thought, enlightenment, and virtuous behavior. Then the Age will change, deluding their minds like a dream, by the force of fate, and when the Golden Age begins, those left over from the Kali Age will be the progenitors of the Golden Age. All four classes will survive as a seed, together with those born in the Golden Age, and the seven sages will teach them all dharma. Thus there is eternal continuity from Age to Age. (Linga Purana 1.40.72–83)
It is here the simple "force of fate" that impels the ever-changing world of samsara, characterized by an "eternal continuity" that links the circle of time. Evil and suffering are, from this point of view, the inexorable consequences of the eternal processes that guide the phenomenal universe.
Within this very large framework of ever-declining and infinitely repeated eons is found the divisions of calendrical time: the day (and its parts), fortnight, month, season, and year. The lunar calendar is divided into 360 days, each day divided into 30 units of 48 minutes called the muhurta s. The next unit traditionally was the fortnights of the waxing and waning moon. Together the two fortnights formed a month. The lunar year consists of twelve months divided into three four-month periods (the caturmasya s) or six seasons: spring, summer or the hot season, the rainy season, autumn, winter, and the cool season. The new year was reckoned to begin either with the full moon in the month of Tapasya (February–March) or with that of the month of Caitra (a.k.a. Madhu, March–April).
Also introduced already by the middle centuries B.C.E. in India and henceforth continuing in all Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions was the notion that the world of samsara was fundamentally illusory. This doctrine, known as maya ("illusion"), held that it is because of our own ignorance that we perceive a world of differentiation and change; and it is through our own ignorance that we suffer and produce karma and thus circle through the cycle of perpetual rebirth. Samsara is contrasted to an unconditioned, eternal, and transcendent state that is equated with "freedom" or "liberation" from such transience, suffering, and rebirth, and the ultimate goal of all Indian religions is to attain such a state.
Whereas the monastic strains of Buddhism and Jainism tended to emphasize renunciation from the world of ordinary, worldly time and the suffering that accompanies it as soon as one had the inclination, in Hinduism a system of gradual withdrawal was recommended. At the level of the individual, a "lifetime" is ideally divided according to the Hindu theory of ashrama s or "stages of life," each with its own set of necessary and important religious duties. The first of these is the stage of the student who is charged with learning the sacred texts and rituals and serving the teacher. This is followed by the stage of life of the married householder who is to pursue worldly life (including pleasure and material gain) within the boundaries of proper religion or dharma. When the householder "sees his son's son," he should begin the process of retiring from worldly concerns and take up the life of the "forest-dweller." The final stage of life is that of the world-renouncer, the samnyasi who has given up worldly duties altogether and seeks the mystical knowledge whereby temporality itself is transcended and the eternal dimension of reality is fully realized. Such a person—and there are Buddhist and Jain equivalents—is thought to be permanently "released" from the bonds of time and forever is identified with the Absolute.
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