By Gautam Saha
Vedic reality is a space-time continuum in which all events of past, present and future are laid out. This however, does not negate the free choice exercised by humans.
Vedic time is not just a linear progression of seconds, minutes, hours, days and years. Within the cosmos, there are time cycles of differing lengths for each planetary system. Time is also a coordinate, and all events, past and future, are to be found in different realms of the four dimensional space-time matrix. This understanding differs from the conventional view of space as being three dimensional, and it being impossible to visit the past or the future. Narad Muni was a prime player in fulfilling Anusuya’s aspiration to have Brahma, Visnu and Mahesh combined as her child (Dattatreya). He met the little boy Dhruv who had gone out in search of Visnu and advised him how to achieve his goal. The great devotee Prahlad, while still in his mother’s womb, had heard Narad Muni’s narrations of the Lord’s transcendental pastimes, while she was sheltered in his ashram. When the king of Mithila found the baby girl Sita while ploughing, Narad Muni appeared and informed him that the baby was none other than Yoga Maya, and he should give her hand in marriage to Rama who is none other than the Lord descended. These are just some of the pastimes of that celestial sage, who appears to have moved freely in space and time, since all these events occurred far apart in time.
Time is the fourth coordinate to be reckoned with in Vedic space.
Vedic units of time
According to Vedic understanding, time is an active potency of the Lord which manipulates the material energy at His will (Gita 11.32). Visnu or Krsna, unseen by mortal eyes, controls every movement in the cosmos. The smallest unit of time is atomic time, determined within the space separating atoms and their interactions. A truti corresponds to thirty three thousand, seven hundred and fiftieth part of a second. On a larger scale, a prana corresponds to 4 seconds and is the average time for a normal human breathing cycle. Interestingly, a prana corresponds to the time each heavenly body rotates by a one minute arc, as each body completes one rotation round its polar axis in 24 hours. Vedanta refers to time as kala chakra, in deference to the intimate relation between each life breath of a human and the inexorable rotation of heavenly bodies.
A solar day is the time between sunrise and the next sunrise. Similarly, a sidereal day is the time between the rising of a particular star to its next rising, as observed from earth. The Vedic day is a lunar day or tithi. Eachtithi is one thirtieth of a lunar month which is the time between a new moon and the next new moon. A lunar month comprises 29 days and a fraction. Hence the pinpointing of ekadesi daysand the correspondingparana timings on the following daudesi days need careful calculation by exponents of this system.
A Vedic year comprises 360 days, just like the systems followed by the ancient Egyptians and Chinese. Each Vedic day, therefore, corresponds to a one degree circular movement of the earth around the sun. It follows that ancient and Vedic scholars knew thousands of years ago that the earth revolves around the sun.Yajnavalkya (9-8th century BC), author of the Shatapatha Brahmana, recognized that the Earth is spherical and expounded a heliocentric concept. He wrote, “The sun strings these worlds – the earth, the planets, the atmosphere – to himself on a thread.” (Shatapatha Brahmana 220.127.116.11).
The concept that the earth revolves around the sun had been proposed by Aristarchus of Samos, Greece (3rdcentury BC). But Aristarchus’s Heliocentrism attracted little attention, possibly due to loss of scientific works during the Hellenistic Era.
In the Vedic context, these time cycles refer to earth. Other realms within the universe have different time cycles. A day in pitralok corresponds to one month on earth. Pitris are dead ancestors who, though not as exalted as demigods, had accumulated pious credits. A day on the planet of the demigods, devlok, is equivalent to one earth year.
Megacycles of time
The larger times cycles are known as yugas. There are 4 yugas of decreasing duration, namely, satya, treta, dwapar and kali. They represent, respectively, 4000, 3000, 2000 and 1000 years in devlok. Also, at the beginning and end of each yuga, there is a sandhya period representing one tenth of the respective yugalength. Hence the total length of kaliyuga is 432,000 earth years. During the sandhya periods, significant events of religious and spiritual significance occur. We are now in the beginning sandhya of kaliyuga. The Lord incarnated in this period as Caitanya Mahaprabhu, to inform humanity that His Holy Name is the only antidote for the vicissitudes and tribulations of kaliyuga.
Caitanya’s mission to disseminate the Holy Name of the Lord around the world is currently underway.
The sum of four yuga cycles is 4,320,000 earth years. At the end of such a cycle, a new cycle starts all over again. Hence, Vedic time moves cyclically, rather than linearly. The next larger unit of time is a manu cycle which is equivalent to 71 yuga cycles, and hence about 306 million earth years. This is normally the life span of demigods (devtas and devis). 14 such manu periods is equal to one day of Brahma, the first created being in the cosmos. Manus are beings created specifically by Brahma, mandated with the task of increasing the earth’s population. One day of Brahma equals 4 billion, 320 million years. Since Brahma’s night is of the same length, and he lives for 100 Brahma years, in earth time, his age is 310 trillion years. According to Vedic estimates, Brahma has lived about half of his life so far, and a similar period will elapse before he dies, Brahma also being under the control of kaal (time) and mahamaya (the Lord’s external creative potency). Both are insurmountable potencies of the Supreme Lord Visnu. Brahma’s present age is about 155 trillion earth years.
The space-time continuum
Time therefore, is relative, being experienced at different rates in different planetary systems. There is an interesting anecdote in Vedic literature. A king named Kukudni, accompanied by his daughter Revati, visited Brahmalok seeking advice regarding selection of a suitable husband for Revati. He must have accumulated substantial pious credits in order to be able to do so. On arrival in Brahmalok, they found Brahma engrossed in a musical concert by gandharvas (celestial singers). Father and daughter waited for the concert to end. When King Kukudni finally asked Brahma for advice, Brahma laughed, saying, “While you were here, 120 million years have elapsed on earth. Not only your friends and relatives, but your whole civilization has disappeared, and no one remembers anything about you. Earth time has passed you by.” This situation is superficially similar to a spaceship with astronauts, flying to distant galaxies at near the speed of light. On return after one year, they find that everything has changed on earth since thousands of years have elapsed. There is a marked similarity between the Vedic interpretation of time and Einstein’s theory of relativity, a satisfactory explanation of which is outside the scope of this article.
Vedic time is like a geometric coordinate. All events and happenings, past, present and future, exist, but in different realms of space. They existed, and will continue to exist in the future, all laid out in the space-time matrix. An event which occurred in the past does not disappear for ever from existence, though from humans’ limited perspective, they appear so. The space-time continuum is real, and great rishis and munis, more powerful than the demigods, known as trikaaldarshis, can look into the past and see real events unfolding before their eyes. Likewise, they can peer into the future and see all events that will occur. Narada Muni is renowned throughout Vedic literature as one who can travel freely in the space-time continuum, being empowered to reach even the highest realm of existence, the spiritual planet of Krsna or Visnu, Golaka Vrindaavan, where The Lord resides with His most confidential associates, any time he wants. AsTrikaaldarshi, he had predicted Krsna’s killing of Kamsa, the Mahabharata and other pastimes of the Lord, before they occurred. He also knows in intimate detail, the pastimes of the Lord during His various past incarnations.
What about our free will ?
If the past and future are already laid out in the space-time continuum, which can be seen clearly bytrikaaldarshis, are all events, past, present and future, foreordained and predestined ? Are all living entities puppets on strings, dancing to the machinations of mahamaya, the Lord’s supremely powerful external potency ? Do humans act helplessly, like animals being prodded and driven through narrow passages to the electric shock chamber in a modern abattoir, with no other way to go ?
As humans, of course we enjoy the choice of our own thoughts, words and actions. While a living entity engages in the acts of breathing, touching, smelling, eating, sleeping, evacuating, and receiving, only its senses are engaged with their objects. The soul, atma, is aloof from these activities (Gita 5.8-9), and is not under the control of time or material nature. The material body, however, is under the control of mahamaya and kaal.A human being, although endowed with intelligence, often fails to understand its eternal spiritual self and goal, preferring to wallow in matter and its enjoyment, enticed and encouraged by mahamaya.
Krsna knows our destination because He is trikaaldarshi. The living entity was originally released into the material realm because it had chosen to enjoy separately from Him. Driven by lust and pride, the human is mostly only interested in a better home, spouse, family, belongings and material comforts, thereby allowing oneself to be beguiled and entrapped by mahamaya (Bhagavatam 9.8.25). This ensures one’s perpetual wandering and attendant suffering in the material world. Krsna knows the fate awaiting us for each of our chosen thoughts or actions. Since living entities want to enjoy freedom, He does not meddle in our choices, even though he knows each one’s outcomes.
We exercise free choices but enjoy / suffer karmic reactions accordingly. Krsna, eager that we come out of the material maelstrom and return to Him, sometimes sends us a devotee or learned sage who shows us the way, enabling us to make informed choices and turn towards Him again, providing us with our only chance to escape from the shackles of material existence.
The whole picture
Physics and chemistry understand and recognize only material substances. All material interactions and processes are driven by fixed laws. In Vedic understanding, all actions and occurrences in the universe are influenced by desires of the myriad living entities. A child has independence to act, though most of its actions are predictable, because its parents know everything about it. Likewise, Krsna knows everything about our activities and their outcomes, never interfering with us.
A spiritual experience is independent of time and karmic reaction. In the spiritual world of Golaka Vrindaavan, everything is timeless or eternal. The bodies of the Lord and His associates are fully spiritual. Whenever the Lord descends to enact His pastimes, His body is not made from the material elements by mahamaya, but created by His internal spiritual potency, yogamaya. The pastimes of Krsna, being fully spiritual, are also eternal. They existed during the past, exist at present, and will exist in the future. The word pastime, referring to leela, the transcendental activities of Lord Krsna, appears paradoxical.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu referred to the Lord’s body and pastimes as “acintya bheda bheda tattva”, simultaneously one, yet variegated. This inconceivable principle is confirmed in the Gita (9.4-6). Krsna Consciousness is the only way to transcend material life and return to the spiritual world (Gita 12.6-7). Exalted rsis like Narada Muni, Vyasa Deva and Sukhdev Goswami, celebrated by Vedic scriptures, have instructed us accordingly. We must accept their instructions as absolute, without demur, reservation or speculation. It is unwise to be guided by our or other humans’ limited intelligence and imperfect senses. The verdict of the Vedic rsis have been accepted by the great acaryas down the millennia. It would be wise to follow suit.