Q: What is the Hindu concept of time?
A: There are two distinct yet inseparable parts of any belief system’s “concept of time.”
The first is “time” and the second is “history.” The difference is subtle and a little tricky, but nevertheless quite important. If we think of a “concept of time” as a parade, we might sat that “time” is the parade route and “history” is the manner of in which people march down the route. In other words, “time” is the overall pattern, and “history” the unfolding of events. Perhaps some illustrations will help clear this up.
In the western world, the dominant understanding of “time” is linear. That is to say, time is sequential – one event following another – and progressive. The parade route is a straight line. There are many different western philosophies of “history,” though.
Traditionally, theistic philosophies of history, for instance, hold to a particular starting point and usually an ending point. Some atheists, on the other hand, believe in a more purely geometric line – no beginning and no end at all. You might say that a theistic parade is headed up by grand marshal who starts the procession and then tells them when to stop. A geometric parade is just a line of floats and bands that have always been marching and always will be.
All that is just a long prologue to the question at hand. So what is the Hindu conception of time? What is their parade route and how does the parade march?
Traditional societies often believe both time and history to be cyclical – in other words, event unfold from A to Z and then start all over again. The scale of the cycle varies from the grand, in which the world (or universe) is created and destroyed and recreated, to the intimate, in which a person is born and dies and is born over again. The literalness of the cycle can also vary.
In other words, in one understanding a doctor named Mr. Mu might be quite literally reborn as a doctor named Mr. Mu; but, in another understanding, a doctor named Mr. Mu might be reborn as a teacher named Mr. Peng who fulfills the same role in history as Mr. Mu did.
The Hindu conception is a variation on this idea: time is cyclical, but history, per se, is not (quite).
The parade route is just a lapped circuit, like a race track, but the players change and there is room for variety or, you might say, improvisation. The laws of
karma dictate a certain degree of unpredictability, and the themes of avatars, heroes, and great epics demand some allowance for progression.
As always, the specific philosophies of history and time are not completely isolated from one another and reflect upon one another. One way in which Hindu history informs Hindu time is the division of time into a pattern of periods of different size which are progressive, yet cyclical to varying degrees. It might be very loosely compared to some astronomical concepts.
A year, for instance, might be like a revolution of the earth. A short cycle with the passing of time and cycle and dark, but in which the experience of people isn’t noticeably cyclical beyond the fact that they way at dawn, work in the day, and sleep at night. Cyclical, yes, but short and moderate significance.
A larger segment of time might compare to the rotation of the earth around the sun. The cycle is considerably longer and brings with it not only the difference in length of days, but major differences in weather and climate, and moreover encompasses more. Over the course of one rotation of the earth the whole of humanity experiences (in different ways, of course) a cycle of the warming and cooling of the earth, a cycle of the days shortening and lengthening, a cycle of planting and harvesting, a cycle of hunting and letting live, etc…
The Hindu divisions of time are far more complex than that and incorporate many more layers, but the manner of the relationship of layers is very similar. “Human years” go into a “god years,” which go into a succession of four different yugas of varying lengths, each cycle of which goes into a mahayuga, a thousand of which go into a kalpa, fourteen of which go into a manvantara, and each of which (kalpa) equal a day or a night in Brahma’s one-hundred-year life. There are general ways in which human years are cyclical, greater ways in which yugas are cyclical, greater yet ways in which kalpas are cyclical, and so on.
Furthermore, the cycle is never truly literal. There is variation, due to the impact of impressive figures or the quirks of personal progress through the samsara cycles of reincarnation. Still, the variation is limited and the overall cycles (especially on the larger scales) are very much the same.
Hindu thought in this regard is complex, especially if you’re coming from a Western alpha to omega perspective. There is some progress, and there is allowance for one person to achieve more with his life than did his predecessors, but the progress is bound within a complicated system of cycles within cycles.