By Nandimukhi Devi Dasi
Shedding some light on a section of the Bhagavatam many of us may be inclined to skip.
Surprisingly to most people, the modern atomic clocks and the concept of time dilation have their analogs in the Vedic scriptures.

Clocks keep the world moving on time. At one point the idea of atomic clocks – measuring the elapse of time by monitoring the frequency of radiation emitted by atoms – must have been revolutionary to modern people. For centuries, many scientific institutions worked to define the second – the basic unit of time – in astronomical terms, such as a fraction of a mean solar day, a lunar cycle, or a tropical year. It was recognized, however, that due to random and systematic variations, the rotation of an astronomical object is far from a natural phenomenon precise and consistent enough to define a standard unit of time. It was not until 1967 that an official definition of a second, based on the idea of atomic clocks, was announced (the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom).1

As important laboratory equipment, clocks also transform the modern concepts of physical reality. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity predicts that observers in relative motion with respect to one another or at different distances from a massive object measure disparate tick rates of identical clocks.2 Since it was proposed, the theory has been forcing the masses to give up a stereotyped notion of simultaneity (e.g., an event in Beijing and another in Washington, D.C., appearing to occur at the same time to an observer on Earth will appear to have occurred simultaneously to any observer). One of the outcomes of these predictions is that a person traveling in a high-speed spaceship would age more slowly than people back on Earth. Another consequence is that clocks closer to massive objects tick slower (due to a stronger gravitational potential). The time dilation predicted in theory is closely connected with modern life. For example, when analyzing navigational data, Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites orbiting in outer space with onboard clocks are equipped with software that accounts for tiny time shifts due to the relative motion with respect to Earth.3

In 2010, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) brought out clocks based on radioactive aluminum ions that are precise enough to measure a miniscule amount of gravitational time dilation resulting from lifting a clock vertically by 30 centimeters in 40 hours.4

Atomic Clocks and Time Dilation in the Bhagavatam

While generations of researchers have been enthusiastically building atomic clocks with ever-increasing sophistication, it may be startling to learn that the modern concept of time dilation finds its analog in Srimad-Bhagavatam, an ancient Vedic scripture. For instance, it is said in Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.11.12) that one day and night for the demigods is one year for human beings. Perhaps it is more startling to find that the idea of atomic clocks – measuring the elapse of time with regard to atomic particles – is also elucidated in Srimad-Bhagavatam (Canto 3, chapter 11).

The description takes place in a dialogue between Vidura and Sage Maitreya. In his exposition, Sage Maitreya first describes the finest and the greatest states of material elements as parama-anu (the supreme tiny) and parama-mahan (the supreme huge), respectively. Parama-anus are innumerable and unmixed, and are the material manifestation’s ultimate particles. They do not necessarily equate to a type of particle discussed in modern physics. Parama-mahan is the totality of parama-anus.

Sage Maitreya then relates the states of material elements with the measurement of time and introduces the idea of atomic clocks: as matter has fine and huge states, time is measured in subtle (saukshmye) and gross (sthaulye) forms. In particular, verse 3.11.4 states that atomic time (parama-anu time) is measured according to its covering a particular atomic space. That time which covers the unmanifest aggregate of atoms is called the great time (parama-mahan time).

Sage Maitreya gives a list of units of time. An abridged summary based on Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.11.5–38 is provided in the box on page 53. The units are named after atomic terms (e.g., paramanu, anu), astronomical terms (e.g., masa, vatsara), as well as human terms (e.g., nadika, muhurta). It is thus seen that phenomena at distinct levels (atomic, astronomical, human) accord well with each other in terms of measurement of time. Note that here vatsara (year) does not necessarily map to a tropical year, a sidereal year, or an anomalistic year5 as defined according to astronomical observations.

In the list, the relativity of the passage of time is ubiquitously encountered; the duration of a nimesha, for example, would be different depending on where it is measured, such as the earthly realm, the Pita planets, the heavenly realm, Brahmaloka, or the residence of the Supreme Lord.

The Supreme Constant

In modern theories, underlying phenomena that are relative are factors that are steady. For the time dilation induced by a difference in relative velocity, a prerequisite in Einstein’s theory is that the speed of light in a vacuum remains the same for any observers regardless of their relative motion. From the use of modern atomic clocks it is evident that physical properties of particles, such as frequencies of their radiations, are taken as consistent at any location in the universe. And there is an even deeper assumption: the laws of physics are unchanging over time and space. These assumptions about constancy are premises in the theories and are hard to verify empirically.

From Srimad-Bhagavatam it can be understood that the constant factor which regulates and harmonizes the operating characteristics of physical objects is ultimately the Supreme Lord, whose supremacy is represented by time: “Time is the potency of the almighty Personality of Godhead, Hari, who controls all physical movement although He is not visible in the physical world” (Bhagavatam 3.11.3), and “Influential stars, planets, luminaries and atoms all over the universe are rotating in their respective orbits under the direction of the Supreme, represented by eternal kala [time]” (Bhagavatam 3.11.13).

Time and space provide a support for the manifestation of the material universe. Recognizing that the universe and the objects within it known to us today are neither invented nor managed by human society, and that the sensory capacity and the intellectual power required for making experimental discoveries are neither devised nor maintained independently by the human being, inquisitive minds are inspired to search for meaningful foundations for understanding themselves and the world. In the practice of Krishna consciousness, such foundations can be found in revealed scriptures in the line of disciplic succession from the Supreme Lord Himself. One only needs to develop one’s relationship with the scriptures under the guidance of a qualified spiritual master. Therefore, let us be encouraged to cultivate knowledge, wisdom, and more imperatively, our relationship with the source of knowledge and wisdom.

NOTES

  1. Benett, J. “The centuries-long quest to measure one second.” Popular Mechanics, March 24, 2017. https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/a25785/quest-measure-second-nist/
  1. Chou, C. W., Hume, D. B., Rosenband, T. and Wineland, D. J., 2010. “Optical clocks and relativity.” Science, 329(5999), pp. 1630–1633. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1192720
  1. To determine its location, the GPS receiver calculates the distance between itself and the GPS satellite it communicated with. This calculation uses the time at which each signal from the satellite was emitted, as determined by the GPS satellites’ onboard clock, time at which each signal from the satellite was received, as determined by the GPS receiver’s clock on Earth, and the transmitting speed of the signal (i.e., the speed of light). The calculation needs to account for the time dilation between the GPS receiver and the satellite.
  1. Bothwell, T., Kennedy, C. J., Aeppli, A., Kedar, D., Robinson, J. M., Oelker, E., Staron, A. and Ye, J., 2022. “Resolving the gravitational redshift across a millimetre-scale atomic sample.” Nature, 602(7897), pp. 420–424. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-04349-7
  1. The anomalistic year (365 days, 6 hours, 13 minutes, 53 seconds) is the time between two passages of Earth through perihelion, the point in its orbit nearest the Sun. https://www.britannica.com/science/anomalistic-year

Nandimukhi Devi Dasi (Yanying Wang), a disciple of His Holiness Romapada Swami, was born and raised in mainland China. She came to the U.S. by herself in August 2014 and later came across Krishna consciousness and devotees via a bhakti-yoga club at The George Washington University. She completed her graduate education in statistics in the U.S. She cares about the development of ISKCON in China and the spreading of Krishna consciousness worldwide.