A Meditation on Time

I take this opportunity to wish you all a happy new year!

On new year’s eve, we celebrate our collective passage from one year to the next. Birthdays perhaps serve a similar function, but their significance is restricted to the individual. Each culture has its own version of a ‘new year’, when the old year is declared finished and a new one as having begun. In farming communities, this event was often tied to the beginning of an agricultural season. Though we continue to celebrate those new years as well, such as Vishu, Ugadi, Baisakhi, Bihu and so on, most of us avidly celebrate the yearly transit as deemed by the Gregorian calendar – from December 31st to January 1st.

Time’s passage can be measured with clocks and calendars at the level of linearity, but at another level, it has been understood as being cyclical. In Indic wisdom traditions, time, or kaal, and its nature is explained using the metaphor of a wheel, chakra. Jain philosophy divides this wheel into two equal parts, denoted by two serpents facing one another. The ascendant part of this cycle of time is called utsarpini, while the descendant part is avasarpini. As the wheel begins to turn, during utsarpini, it is believed that there is a proliferation of goodness and happiness, while it all goes downhill in the downward aspect of the wheel, avasarpini. Any guesses on where we are placed right now according to this view?

There is no concept of an absolute beginning of time, and therefore of a definite end, in the Kaalchakra doctrines of ancient India. There is no Big Bang, in other words. Time always was, is, and will be. One rotation of the chakra would be followed by another. Within a chakra rotation, of course, there is a beginning, middle and end. Creation, destruction and renewal are inbuilt in this view of time. Every beginning has an end coded into it, and every end is followed by a beginning. Nothing is static. Everything is dynamic, everything flows. The Hindu view of the expansion of each cycle comprises its division into four yugasatya, treta, dwapar and kali. There is a comparable concept of a general decline that sets in as each cycle progresses, perhaps to justify its coming to an end.

This view of time encompasses both eternality and change. Time itself always is, though it never is in stasis. It is always on the move, and we who are governed by it have no choice but to move along with it. Its dynamic passage is in evidence in our bodies and in the world around us. When we detach from our being and concerns and sink into meditative absorption, we can experience a point where time seems to expand or ‘come to a standstill’. It is not actually standing still, but because the mind has stilled, so has the point of contact with time. In this stillness, there is a possibility of accessing the part of us that is beyond time. What has been called akaal – timeless, unbound, eternal.

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