In essence, the Hindu doctrine of cosmic cycles conceives a qualitative, “circular” time that cyclically affects our universe and everything in it. A universe that on its part is eternal, without beginning or end, and which manifests itself, together with other billions of universes, from a state of development to another of equilibrium, and then to another of decadence, after which there occurs its dissolution – or pralaya – and back to start again, forever. A universe, in sum, governed by recurrence, where everything has a beat, a pulse; in which, from manifestation to pralaya, there flow in countless numbers the immensely vast Brahma’s days, or kalpas, preceded by their corresponding nights; and where within each kalpa there follow, one another, one thousand “human cycles” or maha–yugas – a study of which, reversing the order, I will attempt in the first place.
Let us begin by noting that each maha–yuga consists of four cyclic ages or yugas, of decreasing length, which mark an equal number of gradual stages of degradation of mankind and so correspond exactly with those ages that the Classical tradition has designated always as the Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron ages – except for a most important aspect of the doctrine: the magnitude of the durations involved. In effect, the length ascribed to the maha–yuga, 4’320,000 common years, is in appearance so disproportionate to represent a human cycle, that it usually startles the Westerner unfamiliar with these matters; because even without mentioning that we are talking about cycles – of which there are as many as one thousand in a Brahma’s day – such length exceeds that of the existence of mankind on Earth, a span of time which, while in a very broad sense can be traced back some millions of years into the past, in a more strict sense – i.e. in relation to modern man, or Sapiens Sapiens – is nevertheless estimated at best as fifty thousand to one hundred thousand years.
On the other hand, why should the lengths of the yugas be proportional to the scale 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 10 and not rather equal, as the four ages of the Classical tradition are? We will see very soon, however, that these difficulties are not unsolvable as might be thought, nor is the problem as a whole as complex as it appears to be; so for the moment, and without further delay, we will take a look into these lengths as can be deduced from the relevant texts.
The maha-yuga or cycle of four decreasing yugas
A part from the proportion by which the lengths decrease, we can immediately see that the total length in “divine years”, translated into “human years”, is the product of the first by 360 – according to the statement in Bhagavata Purana 3, 11:12 that “a day of the demigods is like a year of human beings.”
A careful study of the yuga lengths reveals, however, what is perhaps the most significant fact in all of this analysis (and a perfectly logical one at that): at least in “human years” all the lengths are “circular”, that is, not only are they divisible, by reason of their ending in two or more zeros, by 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 15, 20, etc, but they are also divisible, because the sum of their digits is nine, by 3, 6, 9, 12, 18, 24, 36, 72, 108, 144, 180, 360, etc – all of them "sacred" numbers for most traditions. This essential feature not only fits in with any numerical system based on the circle of 360 degrees, which is most suitable for a circular time as it makes it possible to get exact divisions, but it also enables the “human” lengths to be related to the period of precession of equinoxes of 25,920 common years – the sum of whose digits is also nine. Thus, 72 x 60 = 4,320 and 72 x 360 = 25,920 (the total length of a cycle of precession of the equinoxes, and remember the equinox precessions by one degree every 72 years), and again, 4,320 x 6 = 25,920, all of which is actually not surprising, as the division of the circle is naturally effected by multiples of three, six, or nine – the latter being the one which affords the greatest possibilities.
Now, in connection with these two key numbers, 72
and 25,920, there are extremely suggestive
coincidences that evidence a perfect correspondence
between the life of man, the “microcosms,” and that
of our universe, or “macrocosms.” For one thing, 72
corresponds to the average number of beats of the
human heart in a minute, and a quarter of 72, or 18,
to the human breathings in the same period, so that
in one day a man will have breathed 18 x 60 x 24 =
25,920 times. On the other hand, after 72 years,
which is the average length of life of man at
present, a man will have lived a total 25,920 days (assuming
an ideal year of 360 days), while the Earth’s axis
will have barely traveled a degree of the
equinoctial circle of 360 degrees or 25,920 common
years. In other words: from a cosmic view, man’s
life lasts only one day.
Let me talk a bit more now about the maha-yuga or Hindu cycle of four decreasing ages or yugas.
Perhaps the most vivid description of this key cycle is the one provided by the story of the bull Dharma as narrated in Bhagavata Purana 1, 4:17 ff. There is depicted how Dharma, “Religion,” steadily loses, one by one, his four legs at every successive age: In Satya–yuga, the primeval age in which mankind fully keeps the religious principles, and which is characterized by virtue and wisdom, he is supported by the four principles of austerity, cleanliness, truthfulness, and mercy; in Treta–yuga, the Era in which bad habits appear, he loses austerity; in Dvapara–yuga, as bad habits proliferate, he loses cleanliness; and in Kali–yuga, the Era of quarrel and hypocrisy and of the biggest degradation and spiritual darkness of all four, in which we are now, he additionally loses veracity and is only supported by mercy, which declines gradually as the time of devastation closes by.
This devastation occurs at the end of a final, ghastly period in which men become like dwarves, have extremely short life spans, and decay to unimaginable extremes of depravity. The description of this last period, which appears on the Twelfth Canto of Bhagavata Purana, usually arouses disbelief and rejection from Western readers, although such daunting images are by far not uncommon in the Western tradition (as attested, for example, on biblical texts such as Deuteronomy 28: 53, 57; 2 Kings 6:28–29; Ezekiel 5:10; Lamentation 4:10, etc., etc.). For the rest, in the current cycle such devastation would still take place about four hundred twenty thousand years from now, a date that awaits reassuringly remote in the future – at least from our limited historical perspective, and as long as we take it literally and not symbolically – and which greatly differs from those that other traditions like the Jewish and Persian establish, within the current era, as the end of time – although, as certain considerations that I will talk about in a subsequent post suggest, on the earthly-and-human proper levels the end of this cycle could very well be, so to speak, as close-by as around the corner.
Additionally, the Supreme Lord himself, as the avatara Kalki, is said to appear at the end of the Kali–yuga to destroy the demons, save his devotees and inaugurate another Satya–yuga, another Golden Age, thus starting a new cycle of four yugas.
As to the beginning of the Kali–yuga – a crucial date in our study, as it should let us calculate, once established its actual (and not symbolic) length, its ending date – the Surya–siddhanta, which is perhaps the oldest astronomical treatise in the world, establishes it at midnight of the day that corresponds in our calendar to the 18th February of 3102 BC, when the seven traditional planets, including the Sun and Moon, were aligned in relation to the star Zeta Piscium. While this date certainly sounds implausible, as it contradicts all our notions about the known history on top of raising an apparently insoluble problem – i.e. the obvious incompatibility between the existence of multiple human cycles, on the one hand, and a single human cycle on the other – for the moment I will just mention that such alignment was not long ago confirmed by astronomical calculations made by computer software published in the United States by Duffet-Smith.
Let’s take a look now into the bigger cycles. If we remember, a Brahma’s day consists of one thousand maha–yugas, and his night of an equal number of them. The “day” and “night” therefore are 4’320,000 x 1,000 x 2 = 8,640’000,000 common years long. Now, since Brahma lives one hundred of his years (of 360 “days” each), a simple calculation (8,640’000,000 x 100 x 360) unveils the total length of the immense cycle of cosmic manifestation: 311’040,000’000,000 common years – a duration that theoretically is just that of a breathing period of the Maha–Vishnu, the Great Universal Form, and symbolically corresponds to the two complementary phases into which each cycle of manifestation is divided – in this case a dual, alternating movement of expansion and contraction, exhalation and inhalation, systole and diastole.
Some preliminary remarks are in order here.
In the first place, regarding cosmic cycles, the Hindu tradition, like the Chinese and other ancient traditions, has always expressed their lengths mainly by symbolic numbers so as to conceal a certain knowledge that is considered confidential. Thus, in some cases, some figures may have been “disguised” by either multiplying or dividing them by a factor, or by adding to them a greater or lesser number of zeros – which does not modify their respective proportions; such may be the case with the maha–yuga of 4’320,000 common years. For those Hindus who would not dare to question them, however, the plain, literal yuga lengths should perhaps be considered not so much strictly referred to the Earth but rather to the cosmic level; and in fact, all the difficulties inherent in the problem would be solved by including within the framework of the doctrine different planetary systems in which the cycles of four yugas unfolded successively. This hypothesis raises, however, metaphysical issues that are beyond the scope of our study, so while not excluding that in a next post I may deal with this cycle more extensively, here I have limited to mention it.
As to the kalpa of 4,320 millions of years, an appropriate study of which would indeed require a whole treatise, I must, for one thing, make it clear that its frequent identification by Western scholars with the total cosmic manifestation has been overrun by the age that modern science attributes to the universe, an age that would place it rather on a planetary level or, at best, galactic. And in effect, according to the orthodox Hindus for whom the kalpa is simply synonymous with a Brahma’s day without its corresponding night, the end of the kalpa comes with a partial dissolution of the universe by water; and as regards its duration, the doctrine abides strictly by the aforementioned figure. Now, the fact that this length of time virtually matches the 4,500 millions of years estimated by modern science for the Earth’s age (let alone the “ultimate” figure of 4,310 millions mentioned elsewhere), certainly points to the possibility that it represents the lifetime of our planetary system; if so, it would not be unlikely that the Earth were currently very close to the end of a Brahma’s day and that its corresponding night was now approaching, even if it takes ten or twelve millions of years yet to arrive... However, all this is not by far that simple: For one thing, the related texts are in some cases quite enigmatic, as suggested, for example, by the reiteration of the phrase “Those who know...” (Bhagavad–gita 8:17), so the possibility remains that the 4,320 millions of years do not actually mean the daytime but the full Brahma’s day, so that the length of the daytime would be 2,160 millions of years, and an equal number of years that of the night. So here again, the possibility that the figures may have been somehow disguised should be taken into account.
Finally, the immensely vast length of 311’040,000’000,000 common years that the texts implicitly assign to the great cycle of cosmic manifestation, accommodates indeed comfortably the 15 billions of years estimated by modern physics as the age of the universe; and even if such length were deemed exaggerate – say it was a thousand times lesser, i.e. the actual figure was only 311,040’000,000 years, which is certainly not impossible if we stick to the foregoing considerations – even so the 15 billions of years would fit comfortably within that period. At any rate, it would mean that our universe is still very young and that we are now, within the immense cycle of universal manifestation, virtually at the beginning of an expansion period.
And indeed, it is amazing that it took literally millennia for the modern scientific circles to again conceive this ancient notion of a universe that “breathes,” i.e. a universe that has two phases, one in which it expands and the other in which it contracts; two phases which, by virtue of the correspondences to which cycles of any order of magnitude are subject, can be respectively assimilated to a Brahma’s day and its corresponding night, as well as to both phases of what the Hindus call a Manvantara – an old Hindu measure of time which, in my effort to integrate what we may call the Western and Eastern sides of the doctrine, I will deal with very soon in some detail.
Lima, May 2010
A Message from The Author
Luis Miguel Goitizolo
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