Concepts of Time: Ancient and Modern


Jan 27, INDIA (SUN) — This is one of those paradoxes in life. Man, unconscious of the absolute truth, sees himself a total prisoner of time ceaselessly, trying to gauge the name and nature of his jailor. What control has man in ordering the time of his birth or in extending his stay on this earth? An attempt to get to the truth about man's material awareness of time was stated with some adequacy by Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this pretty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.

While recorded time eludes our attempts to understand it, the totality of time could overwhelm us should we try to envision it. Thanks to the mercy of the Sampradaya Acaryas, however, we are given a very explicit understanding of Eternal Time:

    "Another name of the Paramatma feature of the Lord is kala, or eternal time. Eternal time is the witness of all our actions, good and bad, and thus resultant reactions are destined by Him. It is no use saying that we do not know why we are suffering. We may forget the misdeed for which we may suffer at this present moment, but we must remember that Paramatma is our constant companion and therefore He knows everything--past, present, and future. And because the Paramatma feature of Lord Krsna destines all actions and reactions, He is the supreme controller also. Without His sanction not a blade of grass can move. The living beings are given as much freedom as they deserve, and misuse of that freedom is the cause of suffering. The devotees of the Lord do not misuse their freedom, and therefore they are the good sons of the Lord. Others, who misuse freedom, are put into miseries destined by the eternal kala. The kala offers the conditioned souls both happiness and miseries. It is all predestined by eternal time. As we have miseries uncalled for, so we may have happiness also without being asked, for they are all predestined by kala. No one is therefore either an enemy or friend of the Lord. Everyone is suffering and enjoying the result of his own destiny. This destiny is made by the living beings in course of social intercourse. Everyone here wants to lord it over the material nature, and thus everyone creates his own destiny under the supervision of the Supreme Lord. He is all-pervading and therefore He can see everyone's activities. And because the Lord has no beginning or end, He is known also as the eternal time, kala."

    Teachings of Queen Kunti, Chapter 11

In her book Concepts of Time: Ancient and Modern, Kapila Vatsyayan has expertly dispersed the overwhelming power of the tides of time over mortal man by approaching Time from various stances. Vatsyayan, serving in the role of coordinating editor, took charge of a sheaf of papers written by various authors on the subject of time. Some were book materials, others the transcript of lectures being presented at an IGNCA international conference on the subject of time.

The vital essence of the papers and the rarefied atmosphere that prevailed during the five-day seminar were organized by Kapilaji, who assured that "these were and are not ivory tower discussions of an esoteric order". Included amongst the collections was David Park's Natural Law and the Individual Event, which seeks to relate the Law of Time to individual experiences of its presence. As Macbeth does, he seeks a meaning (or non-meaning) in the life of Lady Macbeth that did not shun ambition, broken up like a negligible twig in autumnal winds. Professor Park began his presentation on Time with the earliest Western formulation of a general law by Anaximander of Miletus in the sixth century B.C.:

    "The source from which existing things derive their existence is also that to which they return at their destruction, for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time."

Raimon Panikkar gave something harder to chew in Kalasakti: The Power of Time. According to him, man is necessarily "time-conscious", and he must proceed by "intellectual intuition and integral experience" to understand time. Compartmentalisation of categories would lead us nowhere, and even knowledge acquired by an integral approach would still remain incomplete. Ultimately, we know that Eternal Time can only be understand from the spiritual platform, as explained by Sri Krsna in Bhagavad-gita: "Time I am".

    "The complete universe is a manifestation of varieties of entities, beginning from the atoms up to the gigantic universe itself, and all is under the control of the Supreme Lord in His form of kala, or eternal time. The controlling time has different dimensions in relation to particular physical embodiments. There is a time for atomic dissolution and a time for the universal dissolution. There is a time for the annihilation of the body of the human being, and there is a time for the annihilation of the universal body. Also, growth, development and resultant actions all depend on the time factor."

    Srimad-Bhagavatam 3:10:10 Purport

    "Above the modes of nature is eternal time, which is called kala because it changes the shape of everything in the material world. Even if we are able to do something temporarily beneficial, time will see that the good project is frustrated in course of time. The only thing possible to be done is to get rid of eternal time, kala, which is compared to kala-sarpa, or the cobra snake, whose bite is always lethal. No one can be saved from the bite of a cobra. The best remedy for getting out of the clutches of the cobralike kala or its integrity, the modes of nature, is bhakti-yoga, as it is recommended in the Bhagavad-gita (14.26)."

    Srimad-Bhagavatam 1:13:46 Purport

In the vast continum of time, where is the place for an absolute definition? "It (Time) exists no-where. We may have a notion of time, but not a noema." Raimon Panikkar with his dreamy eyes, expressive gestures and soft voice led the seminarians over long pathways of logic to arrive at his final statement, which some deemed adequate in its own way: "The Kalasakti, the power of time, reveals herself as the sakti of the Divine, of Siva, one tradition will say, of Reality we may translate in a more general way."

    "Time is called kala--past, present and future. What is now present, tomorrow will be past, and what is now future, tomorrow will be present. But this past, present and future are the past, present and future of the body. We do not belong to the category of the past, present and future. We belong to the category of eternity. Therefore one should be concerned with how to attain or how to be elevated to the platform of eternity. The developed consciousness of the human being should be utilized not in the animal propensities of eating, sleeping, mating and defending but in searching out the valuable path which will help him get that life of eternity. It is said that the sun is taking away our duration of life--every minute, every hour, every day--but if we engage ourselves in the topics of Uttama-sloka, the topics of the Lord, that time cannot be taken away. The time one devotes in a Krsna consciousness temple cannot be taken away. It is an asset--a plus, not a minus. The duration of life, so far as the body is concerned, may be taken; however one tries to keep it intact, no one can do it. But the spiritual education we receive in Krsna consciousness cannot be taken away by the sun. It becomes a solid asset."

    Easy Journey to Other Planets, Chapter 2

A roll call of eminent scholars follows. Among them, S Rinpoche, M.A. Lakshmithathachar, Bettina Baumer and Nabi Hadi wrote expertly on the concept of time in Buddhism, Vishistadvaita, Kashmir Salvism and Sufism respectively. Scholars like Tan Chung, Frits Staal and B.N. Saraswati took charge of the socio-cultural reactions to man's existence in time.

Fortunately for the readers if Concepts of Time, none of the essays is dull. And there is positive exuberance and ecstasy when author Kapilaji introduces her readers to the presence of time in arts and literature. What had seemed familiar and mundane now puts on the garments of beauty and spiritual transcendence.

Chandra Rajan made linguistics leap to life with copious metaphors drawn from the Vedas; Kathleen Raine dealing with Blake (Jerusalem, Heaven and hell) called for cleansing our perception to understand the infinitudes of existence; Keshav Malik presented his lullaby for the modern child in a maddening world; ancient Mesopotomia, Khajuraho and other Indian temples become living realities thanks to the delightful clarity in writing as well as the plates exhibited by Irene Winter, Devangana Desai and Adam Hardy.

Lest we feel left out of New Criticism, Michael Meister does a "de-and-re-constructing" of the Indian temple as "an exemplar of the possibilities for a structural analysis of visual material", for it is unique in "the synchronacity of its cosmological image".

Then there is the colourful spread of a couple of Udaipur Gita Govinda paintings accompanied by Kapilaji's emotively logical study of 'the verbal and visual imagery of memory" in Sri Jayadeva's classic. "Memory is the central axis around which the poet makes loops in time. These effortlessly enlarge and expand to suggest ceaseless cosmic movement in undefined time."

Tala, which helps the control of time for music, is Prem Lata Sharma's subject. Like Bettina Baumer, V.N. Mishra, Peter Malekin, Devanagana Desai and others before her, Prof. Sharma brings in Shiva's image by introducing Abhinavagupta's mangalacharana, then proceeds to explain the tala patterns in ancient music and how these forms have survived centuries of change in other music forms.

The parikrama in Concepts of Time: Ancient and Modern is quite long, and as we do in temples, this parikrama laid by more than fifty scholars to the temple of Kalasakti has to be traversed repeatedly to get at the truth about time.

As Kala carries on, the scholars continue the dialogue while the Lord's voice echoes in the universes through the Gita vakya: "Time I am Time, the destroyer of the worlds."

    "If the spirit soul engages in the spiritual activities of devotional service, he is completely freed from the platform of birth and death. His next position is complete spiritual freedom from a material body. The fear of death is the action of the kala, or the time factor, which represents the influence of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In other words, time is destructive. Whatever is created is subject to destruction and dissolution, which is the action of time. Time is a representation of the Lord, and it reminds us also that we must surrender unto the Lord. The Lord speaks to every conditioned soul as time. He says in Bhagavad-gita that if someone surrenders unto Him, then there is no longer any problem of birth and death. We should therefore accept the time factor as the Supreme Personality of Godhead standing before us."

    Srimad-Bhagavatam 3:26:16 Purport

Source: Adaptation of an article published in the Deccan Herald by Prema Nandakumar.

Image and text copyright Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada.


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