Time, the Winkless God

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A look at what the Srimad-Bhagavatam has to say about time, a concept that has challenged philosophers for centuries.

Time is a little difficult to define. Philosophers and theologians have tried for at least twenty-five centuries. Albert Einstein remarked, in the midst of slightly more esoteric statements regarding physics, that time was what his wristwatch measured. St. Augustine said that he knew what time was as long as no one asked him to explain it. And sounding a note of frustration in her book What, Then, Is Time (the title too is from St. Augustine), Eva Brann laments, “Why don’t I know what that is which I tell, save, spend, mark, waste, and even kill every day of my life with perfect aplomb?”

If we don’t know what time is, perhaps we can at least place it, or say where it is, and is not. In A Brief History of Time scientist Stephen Hawking proposes that “the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe,” thus placing time, say, alongside the universe, or inextricably involved with it. Hawking quotes (yet again) St. Augustine as saying that time is a property of the universe created by God, a property that did not exist before the creation.

The Vedic literature, which covers a wide range of topics, also deals with time. The Srimad-Bhagavatam, specifically, weighs in on the subject of the place and function of time in the creation of the universe. Portions of the Bhagavatam confirm and contradict the assertions of Hawking, Einstein, Augustine, and others, while providing unique perspectives.

The Bhagavatam teaches that Lord Krishna in his form as Vishnu is responsible for creation. Though Brahma and Siva also have roles to play, their power comes from Lord Vishnu. He exists alone before the creation, when nature is a subtle attribute of his person and time is in a dormant state as one of his powers. From his own attributes and powers, Lord Vishnu creates the universe, which is thus identical to him, while remaining unchanged and aloof himself. He maintains the creation effortlessly for an unimaginable length of time, then destroys it and absorbs it back into himself, then creates again.

This happens over and over, and after each destruction Vishnu is alone. Or nearly so. Vishnu has an eternal abode beyond the creation and destruction of matter where his perfect devotees live with him. Vishnu gives these devotees divine, affliction-free bodies like his own, bedecked with crowns and garlands. They reside with him forever, free from rebirth in a temporary universe. Lord Vishnu himself sometimes visits his creation, however, and some of his descents as avatars are described in the Bhagavatam. These avatars come to save the world, delivering the good and destroying the wicked while establishing dharma. Lord Vishnu descends this way of his own free will, unlike the array of subordinate individual souls, all under the sway of their karma, who enter the universe in the beginning of creation.

This cycle of creations is in line with the recurring theme of circular time described in the Vedic literature. The ages of Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali rotate like seasons. The individual living beings rotate through cycles of birth and death in different bodies. Creation and destruction of the universe also occur repeatedly.

Time as an Instrumental Cause

The Srimad-Bhagavatam recounts that as the creation of the universe gets underway, nature manifests from Vishnu in an inert and formless state. With no elements yet, no air, water, and so on, nothing is happening. Vishnu uses his time power to cause a “commotion” in nature and inseminates her with a multiplicity of individual living beings, or souls, as yet without bodies. This sets the creation on its way. The metaphor of a pregnancy is dramatic, with living beings now in the womb of nature, and with time, as an “impelling force,” clearly playing a central, if not precisely specified, role in the mix. Time is an original cause as an instrument of Vishnu, inert nature the original ingredient.

We living souls too are part of the time-activated mix. In his commentary on the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Vijayadvaja identifies time with “the fate of the individual souls necessary for the fruition of their karmas.” Expressing a similar notion, the Bhagavatam speaks of “time which awakens the fate of beings.” By their karma, or past activities, the living beings have a destiny to fulfill, with time, under the direction of Vishnu, awakening and impelling them to it. With this impelled life now in the womb, things begin to happen, and time remains to relentlessly direct each step of the creative process. Time is, in the words of one Bhagavatam commentator, “winkless.”

Portraying time as a power of God may not, as far as definitions go, satisfy a purely scientific mind. But so far, the Bhagavatam perspective does provide time, in response to the “where” question, with a theoretical location or origin beyond the creation, and in response to the “what” question, with a familiar status as one of God’s instruments. Neither of these responses wholly contradicts the statements of Augustine and Hawking that time has no existence or relevance before the creation. Since time in the Bhagavatam is dormant before the universe begins, and awakens more or less simultaneously with the first phase of nature, in one sense it is nonexistent and irrelevant prior to that. On the other hand, Bhagavatam time is not exactly one of the created elements, which have not appeared yet in nature’s womb. It is a property, as Augustine calls it, that precedes other properties.

A Vaishnava wall calendar, filled moment by moment with favorable and unfavorable times for all kinds of religious as well as ordinary activities, demonstrates that placing time beyond creation would not tell the whole story. Time is present in the cycle of ages, as well as in daily affairs. Time’s impelling nature may have its source beyond the universe, but manages to enter the days as well, somehow reconciling its precedence and its “pursuit” of the creation.

On the everyday level, the words “impelling” and “commotional” that the Bhagavatam uses for time in its primordial feature could just as well apply to the unsettling effects a person feels glancing at a calendar or clock. The same kind of impelling force is at work in the daily mix. When Eva Brann asks, “Why don’t I know what time is?” it is the contrast between this extremely familiar, ever-present thing that people daily save, waste, kill, mark, and spend, and the mysterious thing we can hardly know, that provokes her. The Bhagavatam make practical use of these everyday dynamics and images to construct a transcendent view of time. As time pursues the creation, the Bhagavatam, through an elaborate system called Sankhya, draws further on the everyday.

Pursuing the Creation: Sankhya Background

Nature, pregnant with living beings, and in flux under the force of time, next begins to differentiate into component elements. The Bhagavatam puts its description of this process under the heading of Sankhya cosmology. Sankhya carries the meaning of “number,” and the Sankhya system’s efforts to enumerate and categorize the elements of nature bear a loose resemblance to modern scientific efforts to assemble the periodic table. As the periodic table arranges the elements by their atomic numbers, which in turn correspond to their structures and properties, Sankhya describes the properties of its twenty-four elements, or categories of elements, and their relationship to each other. In A Survey of Hinduism, Klaus Klostermaier says of Sankhya, “The enumeration of the twenty-four basic elements is intended to provide a physically correct description of the universe and prepare the ground for the way back to its source.” Reflecting a related motivation in modern science, Hawking writes, “Our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.”

The Second and Third Cantos of the Bhagavatam present several descriptions of the Sankhya system, each differing slightly. The count of elements is sometimes twenty-four, sometimes twenty-five or twenty-seven, depending on how some elements are subdivided. My discussion here draws a general outline of the Sankhya system from various descriptions, including one from the Third Canto, Chapter 26, which lists time as an element. To preview, and to make a long story short, the elements appear in a particular sequence, evolving from one to the next, with one basic explanation for this evolution: the force of time and the force of destiny, or fate. Again time and destiny in the Bhagavatam, if not identical, are closely related.

Pursuing the Creation: Theory of Evolution

Beyond the fundamental similarities already noted, the Sankhya list of elements differs markedly from anything Einstein or Hawking would recognize. There are five “gross” elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. This is a lot like Aristotle’s list (earth, water, fire, air), and is as close as Sankhya gets to elements or categories resembling those in the periodic table. There are then five sense objects: sound, touch, form, taste, and odor. Then five sense organs: ears, skin, eyes, tongue, and nose. Then five working senses: arms, legs, speech organs, genitals, and anus. And three subtle elements: mind, intelligence, and ego. That makes four sets of five and one set of three. Add time for a grand total of twenty-four elements in the entire universe.

Time both moves the creation from step to step and is the context for the sequence of these steps. Of the twenty-four elements above, the Bhagavatam lists ego as the first to appear in the womb of nature. From ego, which “undergoes modifications” by the force of time, both mind and intelligence are produced. Time also modifies ego to produce sound, which appears along with space and the ear. Space evolves through time to produce another group of three: touch, air, and the skin. Air produces form, fire, and the eye. Fire evolves to taste, water, and the tongue. Water transforms to smell, earth, and the nose. Everything appears in automatic sequence by the power of time, under distant supervision by Vishnu. At this point in creation there appears to be only an inventory of elements with nothing fully assembled from them. The Bhagavatam does go on to describe assembly of species of life and planetary systems, all still under the control of time. The chosen topic here, though, is time’s place and the properties that make it elusive.

Properties of the Propertyless

From this summary version of elemental evolution, it is notable that each stage of three elements includes a corresponding sense. Sound and space appear with the ear, touch and air with the skin, form and fire (or light) with the eye. According to Sankhya analysis, as light illuminates form and is perceived by, and inseparable from, the eye, so space is connected to sound and the ear. Space “illuminates” the sound perceived by the ear. It carries sound the way light carries form. Similarly, water carries taste for the tongue, earth originates smell for the nose. Earth, in fact, as the last gross element to evolve, interacts with all five senses. You can smell it, taste it, see it, touch it, and—as it can produce sounds—hear it. Water, the element preceding earth, is odorless in its pure form, and so perceived by only four senses. And so on down to space in the first group of three along with sound, which is perceived by only one sense, the ear. All this is a very analytical, roundabout way of saying that time, though an element, has no corresponding sense or medium, nothing to directly illuminate or perceive it. This is another unique feature of time, one that hints at Eva Brann’s point as to why time is so hard know. Time is present with all the other elements, an essential part of the mix, but lacks a sensory access or affiliation.

A further unique aspect of the time of Sankhya, or perhaps a feature of its second, sense-less aspect, is that it has no special property. The Bhagavatam lists the other twenty-three elements along with their properties, many of which are strikingly obvious. Among water’s properties, for example, are to moisten, soften, remove heat and exhaustion, and slake thirst. The properties of touch are softness and hardness, cold and heat. Sound conveys meaning. And so on with all the elements. Even the mind (thinking, meditating, desiring), the intelligence (doubt, misapprehension, coming to conclusions), and the ego (pride, feeling of dominion) have their properties. Time does not have characteristics the way earth and the other elements do and is not interdependent as the other elements are. Many commentators hold forth on this point of properties, or propertylessness. Gosvami Giridhara-lala writes that time “is not characterized by any peculiarity, and hence it is beginningless and endless.” How being without peculiarity leads to endlessness is not explained, but another commentator echoes the same idea, saying that time “is not dependent on another cause; he exists of his own accord. Hence, he is endless.” The Bhagavatam itself says that time “is endless but puts and end to all. Time is beginningless but marks the beginning of all. He is immutable.” Beginninglessness and endlessness, as well as the ability to impose beginnings and ends on everything else, are features of time in the Bhagavatam that are evidently not considered to be properties comparable to the elemental properties.

Time’s Effects: Light-years and Timepieces

In its Bhagavatam version, time, being without properties, is perceived only by its effects. From the primordial commotion in nature to the appearance and evolution of the elements, time imposes beginnings and ends. Apart from the Bhagavatam, Brann notes that “When time is spoken of ... in the world of nature ... it is usually a word for something else—for motions of various kinds and for their measurements.... When time is named in natural science ... what is meant is a standard motion or a probabilistic tendency.” The Bhagavatam time sets the world in motion and keeps it in motion while remaining invisible. Brann’s comments on time and motion could be taken as another way of saying that time is not only visible by its effects but measured by those effects as well. Her “standard motions” would then, in Sankhya language, be motions of the twenty-three elements, caused by time. And to measure these motions, other elements or objects have to be used. Einstein’s wristwatch, like most standard clocks, was a device calibrated to complete twenty-four cycles within one cycle of the sun. Less common timepieces, like carbon 14, also compare movements in one element with movements of the sun. Practically any element could serve as a clock if its patterns of motion or change are known. Einstein himself was partial to light-years. Old hourglasses used sand. Grand Canyon dating uses the erosive movement of water through stone. If time pursues the creation as the cause of motion or change, then in each of these cases it appears, using a Bhagavatam perspective, that time’s effect on one object is being compared to time’s effect on another, and the comparison is itself taken to be time or a measurement of time. The Bhagavatam proposes that the transformation, change, or movement of an object or element is the mark of time, not time itself.

The Bhagavatam is aware of this object-to-object conception of time and offers a range of measurement instruments, from the movement of atoms to the movement of the sun (which appears to be as central to Bhagavatam calculations as it is to ours). Time calculations range from millionths of a second up to the length of the creation, which is trillions of years.

Sports Section

In terms of definitions, time is elusive. Some of the Bhagavatam verses sound like definitions. For example, time is “God’s power which itself remains unmanifest, but occupies and encompasses [nature] and is competent to manage the creation, etc., of the universe.” Or, time is “the propelling force that awakens the fate of beings.” On closer inspection, though, what sound like definitions are not really definitive—not final, exhaustive, or quintessential. Instead of definitions, they are more like placements, or attributions for the cause of something else. “Time ‘occupies’ nature” is a general placement or location. “Time ‘awakens’ fate” is a causal attribution. Other would-be definitions seem to define roles without fully identifying the role-player. Time as “the power of motivation,” for example. Or time as “the instrumental cause” or as “a weapon in God’s hands.” These are all about what time allegedly does. To some extent the Bhagavatam can respond to Hawking’s statements about time’s relation to the universe, or to Einstein’s remark about his watch, but Brann’s simple question about what time is remains open.

To devotees of Krishna or Vishnu a standard definition may not matter. Time, which is beyond perception and empirical observation, is a power of Krishna, one of the features that makes God worshipable. Using time, Krishna as Vishnu creates without strain. Several places in the Bhagavatam describe Vishnu’s “sportive” (lilaya) approach to the creation of the universe. One verse says that Vishnu “sportively procreated himself in the form of the universe by using Time” as his instrument. Others state that “the sportive actions of the Lord ... comprise within them the preservation, origination, and destruction of the universe” and that by devoted contemplation of his “sportive work” with time, human beings become disgusted with sense pleasures.

Though the Bhagavatam, as well as its commentators, do appear to devote considerable attention to the scientific (in the Sankhya sense) and philosophical aspects of time, time is also portrayed as a divine recreational tool with sportive functions beyond its mysterious and awe-inspiring, thunderboltlike facets. On one hand time “creates terror in beings and reduces their life,” “cuts asunder the hope of life in this world,” and disperses people as the wind disperses clouds. On the other hand time “has no power over the Almighty God,” whose sportive proclivities lead to the repeated creation of the universe.

The contrast between sport and terror is a little alarming, but may bear some similarities to the discussion, outside the Vedic tradition, regarding how God can be good if there is suffering in the creation. As a Christian may assert in the face of suffering that God is all good, so the Vaishnava concept of a playful Vishnu may hint at the same idea of a benign God. For Vaishnavas, Time in creation gives living beings the chance to pursue their goals both in life after life and in creation after creation. While there is fear and terror involved in this process, mention of eternal suffering or condemnation is absent. Everyone gets a sporting chance at improving their standing in life.

The idea of sport may also emphasize the independence of a Supreme Being. In any tradition, the appearance of God within the creation might raise a doubt concerning divine supremacy. One perspective derived from the Srimad-Bhagavatam is that whether God speaks from clouds, a mountain, or a burning bush, or whether he descends as an avatar, these are all sporting activities in the sense of freely chosen and undertaken for enjoyment without the prospect of negative consequences. God’s actions are fully voluntary. He never comes under the control of nature, which is controlled by his energy known as time.