On the cycle of the yugas

3 05 2019

A reader pointed out two essays in First Things by Russian author, Eugene Vodolazkin, more or less on the themes of time and historical truth. For the most part, these essays suffer from the tendency of literary scholars to divide the world into a series of just-so stories: observations from limited sources that seem to flawlessly explain the long arc of history. So needless to say, I don’t agree with much in these articles. But I do want to draw from them two themes to discuss here, namely, the repetitive nature of past narratives, as well as the progressive concept of time.

In The New Middle Ages, Vodolazkin describes how events and not characters were central to narratives in the past, with protagonists being described more by repeating literary tropes than in-depth personal descriptions. A particular historical figure might seem like an echo or repetition of a previous hero or king, and the idea of plagiarism in this regard was virtually non-existent. This is not even to mention that authors were often anonymous as a matter of course. What was important was what was being said, not who said it.

These points back up my previous explanation of how I think the historical past as we know it is very much a creature of the present. We only know the past so well as we do because of critical reading and research methods developed during the Renaissance and early modernity. Before, there was no real idea of the past being substantially different from the present.

The Taking of Jesus by Caravaggio

Nor did they think that the future would be substantially different from the present. Vodolazkin’s other essay, The Age of Concentration,  articulates a common criticism of the modern drive towards utopias: namely, the past starts out simple and unfolds into the complexity of modernity, that progress is the iron law of history. Vodolazkin’s idea is that in postmodernity, we are repeating the past, particularly the Middle Ages, and that many of the tropes common to us echo an epoch where certainty was far less important. It’s as if having come to an apex of information, we realize that we haven’t really gotten that far at all.

I want to leave these essays behind now to write a bit more about linear time, which is the culprit in all of this. To help me in this, I would like to explain with my limited knowledge the cycles of time that unfold in the Vedas and Puranas of India. This is perhaps the most popular and developed system of cyclical time still in existence, and its influence has even made it into popular Western culture. The first thing we have to realize is that, unlike time in Western monotheistic religions, Vedic time is trying to measure something eternal, which means that it goes backwards and forward millions and billions of years, if not more. Unlike the “young Earth” issues of Western creationists, people applying Vedic time to our context have an “old Earth” problem. Humans, demons, demi-gods, animals, etc. all seem to exist millions and billions of years ago in ever-changing permutations. Not only that, but something told in one scripture might apply to this planet, another planet (loka), or both, or with variations, etc. In other words, an event might have happened six thousand years ago, six million years ago, six billion years ago, or may be happening right now in a different universe. (In the Srimad Bhagavatam, Maha Vishnu lies on his bed of snakes in the Casual Ocean and universes come out of his pores; numerous universes are inhaled and exhaled through his nostrils.)

So whereas the Christian obsession is to hammer the Eternal into time and make it abide by its rules, the Eternal runs rampant throughout the Hindu scriptures and the lore issuing forth from them. Nevertheless, universes tend to go through four cycles: Satya yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. Through sheer cosmic entropy, things start out ideal and degenerate until it all has to be destroyed to start again. In the earlier yugas, everything is mostly good, people and demigods live a long time, and virtue generally reigns. In the later yugas, people live shorter lives, evil seems to grow stronger, and everything veers toward oblivion. A helpful explanation is that, in Satya Yuga, evil isn’t even on this planet; in Treta Yuga, it wasn’t in the same country (as in it being found only in Lanka in the Ramayana); in Dvapara Yuga, good and evil were found in the same family (the Kurus at the Battle of Kurukshetra made famous in the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita); and in Kali Yuga, good and evil are found in the same person. At the end of Kali Yuga (around 425, 000 years – we are only about 6,000 years in), everything is destroyed and the cycle begins again.

In this system, one doesn’t really have history. Rama always comes in Treta Yuga. Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, always come back at the end of Dvapara Yuga, and returns as Kalki at the end of the Kali Yuga to kill all the unjust of the Earth. That’s why reading all of this can be frustrating at times. One cannot really wonder what Krishna was really like six thousand years ago, because his lilas (pastimes) in Vrindavan, chasing after cows and teasing gopis, may be going on right this second in another universe (take your pick, there are probably billions of them), and they are definitely going on in Goloka Vrindavan, the “Cow Planet” which is the highest plane of existence where Krishna has resided, is residing, and will reside unto the ages of ages (Amen). Indeed, what any historical scholar could try to surmise about a “historical Krishna” (as in the “historical Jesus”) is merely a faint reflection of the blue cowherd boy playing the flute who is the center and ground of all existence. To try to capture this in time with one’s limited fallen senses misses the point entirely.

Of course, the modern mind thinks this is a cop-out, a fideistic escape from the tangible world of hard science. Again, here all modern Western science is doing is trying to make the impermanent permanent. And the source for this is perhaps the Judeo-Christian defined sense of time: the idea that God made one world with a set beginning and a certain end, where each individual person lives once with their eternal fate being sealed after a definitive point. All becomes determined by time as the unforgiving task master, and from what we can surmise from the doctrine of the eternity of Hell, there are no do-overs.

But is the mind, or spirit, really that way? If I try to teach a child the idea of half (half of a square, half of a gallon of milk, half of a chicken, or half the planet), I can’t point to a Platonic Half. There is something less material going on there, something that transcends matter that we just “get” at a certain point. By trying to pigeonhole the spirit (or soul) into matter, to make it play by material rules, we may be tempted to think that it is a product of the material. Indeed, that is what the modern mind really is: it thinks that spirit emerges from a certain random combination of material inputs. And by mastering that combination, we think that we will be able to create spirit artificially, or dominate it for our own ends through an algorithm or computer program. That is the dream of artificial intelligence (AI), a fully automated economy, trangenderism, and every other endeavor to create permanent predictable living through human knowledge and effort.

I know that we can’t stop progress, but stopping progress isn’t the point. If the Vedas and Puranas are correct, we have been here before, and the Promethean impulse is nothing new. It is an odd idea to us that our advanced civilization may not be the result of strength, but of weakness. It is because we are in Kali Yuga, the short Iron Age that is the time of quarrel and hypocrisy, that humans decided to pool their limited material forces together to dominate the planet only for it to not go too well (as I am predicting). But no matter, things will start again, and the eternal soul, which is part and parcel of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, will pass into other bodies in other ages, perhaps human, animal, or even demigod, until she returns to serve Krishna again as he chases after his cows in forests of Vrindavan.



2 responses

14 05 2019

Om Numah Shivayah

7 05 2019

Interestingly, a few days after I read this, I came across this essay by David Bentley Hart, in which he argues along similar lines to this essay. Check it out.

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