Time According to the Vedas
Puranic concepts of time as “an active potency of the Supreme which manipulates the material energy,” can appear incompatible with Einstein's analysis of time as a geometric coordinate in the fabric of space. All the same, Thompson considers the rich complexity of the Puranic accounts, which include calculation of time based on atomic action, the motion of the stars and planets in terms of arc-seconds, and time dilation over cosmic distances.
TRANSCRIPT: Time According to the Vedas. n-d / (017)
I was asked to say something about Vedic conception of time. It’s an interesting topic, there’s actually quite a number of things to be said. First of all, the basic definition of time is that time is an active potency of the Supreme in manipulating the material energy, so time is an active agency in that sense. In modern science, time actually turns out to play the role of a number or geometric coordinate, but in the Vedic scheme of things, it’s something active. There are different dimensions of time. The starting point in the Vedic system is what is called atomic time, and this is an interesting conception. There is... in the Srimad-Bhagavatam it is mentioned here:
One can estimate time by measuring the movement of the atomic combinations of the bodies. Time is the potency of the almighty Personality of Godhead Hari, who controls all physical movement, although He is non-visible in the physical world. Atomic time is measured according to its covering a particular atomic space, that time which covers the unmanifest, aggregate of all atoms is called the great time.
So, that the starting point of the description of time in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, that time is based on the action of atoms, so, that’s the starting point. There are a number of units of time of various sizes; in particular, there is one unit called the truti, which is... various sizes are indicated for that. One figure that I have for that is 1/133,750th of the second, that’s one unit of time mentioned in Vedic literature – so they subdivided time in quite finely. So, going beyond that there are various units of time that apply to the period of ordinary human life during the day. One interesting unit is called prana; prana is about 4 seconds. Actually prana means breath, so that’s... if you can think, if you are breathing gently, a breath would take about 4 seconds, let’s say, a rough figure. But this prana also has another meaning, it turns out the number of pranas in one 24 hour day is the same as the number of minutes of arc in a circle. So with that comes down to then, is that with each 4 seconds, or about with each breath, the stars and planets rotate through one minute of arc; and that’s happening all the time.
So that sort of gives you an idea of the inevitability of time. Actually the rotation of the planetary systems in the Vedic system is called the kala-cakra, which means the wheel of time – kala is the word for time – so what is happening there is there is the polar axis that goes through the North Star or close to it. So if you could look at the sky at night, let’s say sometimes people do this with time exposure camera: you have a camera in which the shutter is open for several hours, you will see that all the stars and planets and so on are rotating around one axis, so that rotation makes one complete revolution in a day. So every 4 seconds, or every breath, the whole system of stars and planets rotates for 1 minute of arc. So it turns out that many of the dimensions of time, or units of time, in the Vedic system relate with astronomy. Interestingly enough, there are quite a number of sophisticated descriptions of different units of time, for example there is the solar day. That’s the time from sunrise to another sunrise, but that’s distinguished from something called a sidereal day, which is the time from when a given star rises on the horizon to the time the star rises again; and that’s different from the solar day, due to the fact that the sun is moving everyday with respect to the stars. So another unit is called the lunar day, this is 1/30th of a month; so a month is the time, say, from new moon to new moon; so that’s about 29 and some fraction days of 24 hours; so 1/30th of that is therefore less than one 24 hour day; so that’s called the lunar day or tithi. And Ekadasi for example is a tithi, so that’s why there are certain complexities in deciding what time Ekadasi is. So these are some units of time. So these are earthly measures of time, but beyond this there are different measures of time applying the demigods.
So the smallest of these is a month. It’s described that one month is the period of the day and night of the pitris. Pitris are a classification of beings not quite on the level of demigods, but actually, this word pitris is commonly translated as ancestors, but when a person dies and when they have pious credits, they can take birth as one of these pitris. They live in somewhat nice situation within the universe, so it’s described that their day and night period is one month. And also in... there’s a Vedic book called Surya-siddhantha which describes them as having a residence on the moon, which would be logical if their day and night a period of one month. They also have a residence in what is known as lower planetary systems of the universe. So beyond that the day and night of the demigods is one year on the earth, so there’re some astronomical points here.
In the Srimad-Bhagavatam it’s described that there are 360 days in a year, which is an interesting feature. It’s apparently a very ancient system because you will find that the ancient Egyptians initially had 360 days in a year and later they shifted to 365 days. Also the Chinese had 360 at one point, so it’s a very ancient system. Of course in that system every few years what you do is add an extra month in order to make up the complete time for a year of 365 and a quarter days. So the year of demigods then... or the day of the demigods is one year for people on the earth; it’s described that 360 days of the demigods is one year of the demigods, so there’s a time scale for the demigods or devas.
So this is broken into periods of time called yugas. So this brings you up to another time scale in the universe. So it’s described that there are four yugas called Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali. And in terms of the years of the demigods, actually these yugas go in succession of increasing shortness: first one is 4000 years of the demigods, and then 3000, 2000, and 1000 years of the demigods. And they have what are called sandhya periods at the beginning and end of each, which is the 1/10th of that yuga. So in particular for the last one a 1000 years plus 1/10th of either end gives you 1200 years of demigods and that’s known as the Kali-yuga. And at the beginning there is 100 year period of the demigods which is the sandhya. Since one year of demigods is 360 years of this earth, you multiply all these numbers by 360 to convert it into earth years, so that means Kali-yuga takes, if you multiply that, a total of 432,000 years. But the 100 years sandhya comes out to 36,000 years and that’s significant because it’s described that various religious activities takes place in particular during the sandhya periods at the beginnings and ends of yugas. So in particular we are now in yuga sandhya of the Kali-yuga and this is the period in which Lord Chaitanya’s movement takes place, so that’s the significance there. So the total period for the four yugas is 4,320,000 years. So it’s described that these yugas repeat in a cycle. So one can speak of that 4,320,000 year period as a yuga cycle.
So the next division of time beyond that is what’s called a manu period, and that’s 71 yuga cycles. So that lasts for about 306 million years. So the life span period of most of the major demigods described in the Bhagavatam lasts for that period of time. So, beyond that there are 14 such manu periods, in what is called one day of Brahma. And there are also intermediate periods, separating these Manu’s, so that comes to a total of 1000 yuga cycles. So one day of the chief demigod within the universe, who is known as Brahma, comes to 4,320,000,000 years; so that’s the day-time period of Brahma, as it’s described. And then an equivalent period corresponds to night time of Brahma, and it’s described that Brahma lives for 100 years made of days and nights of that length. So if you... it’s described that right now Brahma is about 50 years old in terms of his time span, so that comes to a period of about 155 trillion years have passed in the time period of Brahma. So this is the kind of time scale that you have in the Vedic system. It’s described that in one sense time is relative, these different systems or units of time can be described in terms of earth years, but subjectively they are experienced in different ways, by different living beings. There’s specific information on this for example with regard to Brahma. It is said that Brahma lives for 100 years of his own time, and in fact for Brahma the passage of time goes at a different rate than it does for us, although apparently he can speed things up so as to experience time at our level also.
But in any case there is one interesting story about a King named Kakudmi, who had a daughter named Revati. This king wanted to obtain a husband for his daughter. So apparently he wasn’t an ordinary king, so he went up to the planet of Brahma, Brahmaloka, to personally ask Brahma to select a husband for his daughter. So when he and his daughter arrived there, Brahma was busy because he was listening to a concert being put on by the Gandharvas, a race of celestial musicians. So this took a certain period of time, and when the concert was over Brahma asked the king what he wanted. He expressed his desire, and Brahma then laughed and said, “Well, all of the different possible husbands you had in mind for your daughter have died a long time ago. In fact the entire civilization that you were living in has vanished into dust, and no one even remembers the names of any of the people who were living in that civilization.” Because it seems that while the king was listening to the concert, about 120 million years had passed on the earth. So this gives an idea of the different time scales.
Actually, it’s interesting, this forms a sort of superficial parallel of some ideas that you find with theory of relativity. There is a calculation that you can do according to which, in that theory, if someone were to travel in a spaceship, let’s say at some, say percentage of the speed of light, say close to 100%, travel around say a big circle and come back, then according to that calculation the person on the spaceship would have aged, let’s say, 1 year, but on the earth thousands of years would have passed – you can do calculations like that. So in this case though, it’s not a matter of travel near the speed of light exactly, but when one enters into the environment of Brahma’s realm within the universe, the rate of passage of time is different. So one moment there corresponds to the passage of a long period of time on the earth. So that’s one aspect of the passage of time.
So, let’s see, there’re various other aspects to this. One curious aspect concerning the nature of time in the Vedic system is that events are known in advance, and this also curiously enough has some relationship with the theory of relativity. It seems that in that theory, time is like a geometrical coordinate, as I mentioned In the beginning, and the effect of that has is that, in effect, all events that are going to occur are already there. This is the picture that emerges from the theory of relativity because time is sort of space, and so events in the future are there, so to speak, in a different region of space where we are. In fact, in that theory it’s possible to shift between the dimensions of space and the dimensions of time, so they’re sort of interchangeable. So according to that idea, everything that is going to happen exists in a sort of timeless domain, and everything that has already happened also exists. So it’s interesting, Einstein in fact completely accepted this whole picture of things, and he even used it to console a widow at one point. Einstein had a friend named Besso, actually from I guess childhood even, and when they were both quite old, the friend died. So Einstein said to his friend’s widow, “Well you don’t have to lament over the passing of your husband. In fact there is no such thing such as passage of time – the passage of time is simply an illusion.” This was the point Einstein tried to make. Well actually in his theory that would have to be true because everything is there, all laid out so to speak. According to this idea, a human being is what he would call a spacetime worm, you can imagine the worm at one end there is a baby, at the other end say an old man, and in between there are different stages, and that’s all just there. This is the picture. Well, this seems a little bit artificial in many ways; it turns out, though, that according to the Vedic system, it’s also true that all the different events that are going to take place, and that have taken place, are there in some fashion – they are laid out in a continuum. And that being the case, it is possible for some great sages to see the future. For example, this is capacity known as trikala-jna, or knowing the three phases of time: past, present, and future.
And one example of this would be the sage named Narada Muni. On one occasion he was visiting Lord Krsna and he began to describe how Krsna would be doing different things in the future: he would be killing Kamsa, and he would engage in the battle of Kurusketra, and so many different things. So he was describing all these events in advance; so in one sense then, all the different events are also laid out in the Vedic system. So one might ask, “Well then, how does this relate to the whole question of free will?” And how also does it relate to the idea we have that we are able to act, and that we are doing different things? Is this feeling we have that we are acting with the passage of time just an illusion? This was Einstein’s idea.
So it turns out the ingredient that is missing from the picture you have in modern physics, but which is present in the Vedic scheme, is that in the Vedic system you have the description of how the spirit soul is related to the material continuum. So time as described in the Vedic system applies to the material world, actually the spirit soul is not under the jurisdiction of time, but the material body is, so the arrangement is set up within the material world, so that in accordance with the desires of the different spirit souls, the different interactions of the material elements are controlled and conducted by the action of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Since the Supreme Personality of Godhead is omniscient, all the different actions and reactions are worked out once and for all; however this is in accordance with the desires of the spirit souls. So in one sense then you could say there is no possibility of changing everything because Krsna knows everything that is going to happen at any point in time. In fact that implication is necessarily there if you think that God is omniscient. If God knows everything, then he can’t be surprised concerning what the future is going to be. So at the same time though, because all of the different interactions of the material elements and so forth are carried out in accordance with the desires of the living entities, and also karma, which is another element, there is at the same time free will, because, it cannot be said that the different actions and reactions are taking place are not as desired by the living entities.
So the reason that this picture different than the picture that you have in physics, say in the theory of relativity, is it... in the physical picture the only thing that exists is the material system and so the different actions and reactions occur according to the physical laws and according, then, to the picture that you have according to the theory of relativity. The whole thing is worked out as one complete picture, which is just there; and all the different parts of that picture are related to one another according to the laws, and that’s the total story. So there, there’s no question of free will because really there is nothing to be free in that picture – there’s just the physical system, and that’s all that exists. So, in the Vedic scheme, the total history of the interaction of the material elements is also worked out and is also actually there, so that a sage like Narada Muni could see it in advance – if he’s given the potency to see that, and that potency is granted by Krsna – but the whole thing is worked out in relation with the desires of the spirit souls, the actual living entities, so since in the Vedic system there is something there to be free, you can have free will, you don’t just have the material continuum. At the same time however, Krsna knows everything that is going to happen – that’s the nature of the position of God, being able to know everything – but there is no contradiction there. It’s just like in one sense we can see that in ordinary life, in the example of let’s say a young child, it’s a somewhat crude example, but you may know what a young child is going to do, but that doesn’t mean the young child doesn’t act according to its will, even though you know exactly what it is in advance. So similarly Krsna knows everything that is happening, so that is another aspect of time. The spirit soul is under the jurisdiction of time as long as the spirit soul is caught within the material universe. The soul also can exist in a liberated state completely free from any influence of matter. Yeah?
Answer: Well what happens is, as I was describing, from the point of view of the experience of time, there are different scales of time. I mentioned that story of the king, and he began to experience time on a different scale because he went into a different environment within the material world. So even within the same body, it is possible to experience time subjectively on different scales. Now if one has a purely spiritual experience, that would be totally beyond time. There’s an interesting description in the Brahma-samhita, there’s a description here of what the spiritual world is like, it’s kind of interesting. I will just read it, it mentions a number of things. Time gets mentioned toward the end here, so the description is,
I worship that transcendental seat, known as Śvetadvīpa, where as loving consorts the Lakṣmīs in their unalloyed spiritual essence practice the amorous service of the Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa as their only lover; where every tree is a transcendental purpose tree; where the soil is the purpose gem, all water is nectar, every word is a song, every gait is a dance, the flute is the favorite attendant, effulgence is full of transcendental bliss and the supreme spiritual entities are all enjoyable and tasty, where numberless milk cows always emit transcendental oceans of milk; where there is eternal existence of transcendental time, who is ever present and without past or future and hence is not subject to the quality of passing away even for the space of half a moment. That realm is known as Goloka only to a very few self-realized souls in this world. [Bs. 5.56]
A: Yeah, this is the spiritual world. So this is described, and you can actually know that in this world, although it says only a few self-realized souls actually realize this, but the feature of time here – it’s interesting the way it’s described here. In transcendental time nothing passes away, so we are describing going up through the system within the material universe, there are different rates of passage of time. It’s not that Brahma however is acting in slow motion, his consciousness can do more, so to speak, within any given moment of time, so the final state of time is spiritual time. And in this situation of spiritual time, in one sense, time stops because nothing passes away. But in another sense, there are all these activities which are being described. In fact there are pastimes in the spiritual world, of course the word in Sanskrit is called lila. But in English, ‘pastime’ would seem to mean the time is passing; but at the same time, no time is passing. So you have a sort of paradoxical situation in the spiritual world, in which everything is present all at once, and at the same time, time is passing in the sense that different events occur, nothing is ever lost. So one refers to the eternal pastimes of Krsna, they have different variegated aspects, and yet they eternally exist and they are eternally enjoyed in the spiritual world. So from the point of view of material experience it is hard to understand what that is like, although if you extrapolate from even an experience of a timeless moment in this world to its ultimate limit, one could get some idea of what the spiritual experience would be like. But the only way to really know is to go to the spiritual world. Actually one interesting aspect of time is described in the spiritual world, is this is very similar to the principle of acyintya-bedabeda-tattva, which describes the relation between Krsna and his energies. Because Krsna is one and yet he has many different energies which are non-different from himself, so how can that be? Well, Lord Caitanya explained that there is actually a fundamental axiomatic principle of spiritual knowledge, which he described as acyintya-bedabeda-tattva, or inconceivable simultaneous oneness and difference, and the idea there is that Krsna is one but at the same time he has variety, and on the level of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, oneness and variety are there simultaneously. So we see in time, on the spiritual level, it’s a similar situation. There are events and at the same time nothing ever passes away, so you have oneness and variety in the time on the spiritual platform. Yeah?
A: Yeah, that’s what it is. Yes, is this just theory or is it possible to actually experience this? But it is possible and the situation is that the spirit soul in the materially conditioned state is forced to experience the passage of material time. So of course the nature of material time is that we are sort of moved through the sequence of material events in which things, some things are in the future and we haven’t experienced them yet, some things are happening right now, and some things are going into the past. It’s like that with every breath the universe revolves by one minute of arch, it’s inexorable and inevitable. So... but this state of affairs for the spirit soul is not the only situation. One can enter into this spiritual realm of existence and that’s what the whole purpose of Krsna Consciousness really is, to be able to reach that level of spiritual existence.
A: Well, you do make the choice, Krsna knows…
Q: How do you make the choice?
A: Well, you make the choice in terms of your desire, just like it’s all worked out, but because you are desiring in a certain way, that’s why Krsna has worked it out to happen in that way – because He knows what you will desire. He also knows the point where you will desire to be free from all this. Actually Brhad-bhagavatamrta, it’s interesting, it’s the story of a person named Gopa Kumara, it’s a description of his spiritual journey so to speak, so at a certain point in his life he met a guru. Actually he was living in Vrindavana, he met a self-realized soul, he was taught by the self-realized soul to chant the holy name, and he began to do this. But many long years passed and different things have happened and so the description of his experience, and it describes that he went through the different levels of the universe, he spent time in Svargaloka as a demigod, he went out to Janaloka and Tapaloka which are still higher planetary systems, even spent millions and millions of years as Brahma at one point. Finally after going through different experiences he went to Vaikunhta and he met Lord Visnu in Vaikuntha and Lord Visnu said, “Well, I knew in this birth (referring to one back in Vrindavana where he met his guru), I knew at this point you would turn to me and it was so long you did not turn to me, I was just hoping you would do that, but since I knew that you would turn back to me during this birth, I put you in contact with this guru and now at last you come back to me.” So this was the description.