Understanding Time – Part III – The Vedantic Viewpoint

In this post, I want to wrap up the discussion on time which by now has started to acquire the status of a reflection on the cause of the Universe itself. To wrap up the previous post, we did talk about the Atman and the Paramatman and their unity. Hence the wise in reflecting upon the self, have in essence reflected on the world.

Duality & Maya

Unity of the Atman and the Paramatman is in sharp contradistinction to what our sense organs tell us. Our sense organs and mind are used to distinguishing between “me” and “not me”. Perception itself pre-supposes the existence of a perceiver who is distinct from the perceived. A theory that asserts otherwise is in short, belying the importance of the sense organs.

The astute reader might have recognized Zeno’s paradoxes reverberating in these assertions of the Unity between the Atman and the Paramatman. But Zeno or for that matter the entire pantheon of famous greek philosophers did not have a spiritual basis for their arguments. Their arguments were founded on reason which is a product of perception. We don’t know what we cannot perceive. Reason is not a reliable weapon to attack Duality since reason is a product of Duality. Hence the incidental similarity between the two philosophies cannot be construed to mean that the philosophy of the greeks is the same as that of Vedanta. Nothing can be farther from the truth. (Having said that, I need to point out that there have been many theories that talk about the exodus of knowledge and people from the Indian subcontinent to Greece and further. According to these theories, the Greeks have benefitted from Hindu ideas thought the rationale might have been lost in transit.  If I excessively emphasize these theories, I would be accused of being a Hindu fundamentalist since this would amount to endorsing grandiose theories that espouse the Indian sub continent as the cradle of civilization. I would probably discuss some of these at a later point when I have more ammunition :-))

This  perception of oneself as distinct from the objects around is called duality. “Me is me” and the “world is world” and never the twain shall meet. (if you can excuse the  crude paraphrasing of Rudyard Kipling) Duality is instilled in all of us during our formative years and hence is impossible to shake off. In fact, a rather profound saying states that “There are two types of people in this world – the ones that divide the world into two parts and the ones who don’t”.  This saying states that duality is so ingrained in all of us that in talking about it itself we cannot escape duality. Hence it requires a Nirvana or Moksha to break Duality.

So what makes Duality so ingrained in all of us? According to the Hindu belief, Maya or ignorance is the entity that is causing this fundamental, perpetual and pervasive perception of Duality. May, in fact is so powerful that it has been personified as a temptress in many mythological stories. So how does one escape from the diabolical clutches of Maya? In short, how do you become “non ignorant”? The answer is simple. Just gain knowledge and you would end the ignorance! But this knowledge is not mere intellectual knowledge. Intellectual knowledge, as we discussed before, is rooted in perception and hence is not immune from Maya. It requires the steadfast pursuit of spiritual knowledge to “slay” Maya.

Indeed the entire purpose of Hinduism to equip the follower to overcome Maya. This needs to be done differently for different individuals. Hence Hinduism admits of polytheism, monotheism, pantheism and even a shade of atheism or agnosticism. A detailed discussion of all these would take us on to too many detours and would be deferred to future post.

Vasanas, Karma & Reincarnation

Hinduism believes that overcoming Maya is the fundamental goal of every living being. But we know that every person born does not attain Moksha in their lifetime. And what about animals and plants? How do they attain Moksha? A religion that does not take the diverse life forms into account, would be inadequate. The Hindu belief is that every Atman exists with certain tendencies called Vasanas. Vasanas are also called desires. These need to be exhausted for the Atman to attain Moksha. These vasanas get diminished in the process of living. But human being, being the ones endowed with free will, have the ability to accumulate more vasanas. Hence the ultimate fulfillment lies in exhausting these vasanas. Karma or action is the way to reduce  these vasanas. But karma itself needs to be non attached i.e. karma needs to be done without expectations of the fruits of the karma. That is the only kind of karma which would result in the reduction of Vasanas for the Atman. However, all vasanas cannot be exhausted using the human form nor can they be exhausted during the course of one lifetime. Hence several incarnations (as different beings) would be required to reduce these vasanas. Hence the doctrine of reincarnation is central to the theory of Karma.

Where does Time come into all this?

The detour that we have gone into is fundamental to the establishment of the Vedantic view of time. I am choosing a very pithy mantra that describes the Atman from the Ishavasya Upanishad to illustrate the vedantic viewpoint. Vedanta is literally sprayed with countless mantras that talk about the Paramatman but I am choosing this one since it also indirectly has a bearing on our time discussion. The mantra says:

tad ejati tan naijati tad dure tad vadantike
tad antar asya sarvasya tad u sarvasyasya bahyatah.

which can be approximately translated to

It moves it moves not it is far it is near it is inside of everything and at the same it contains everything.

At first sight, this does not make a whole lot of sense! One of the first things we notice is the palpable contradictions that are liberally sprinkled all over the verse. The chief rationale behind the use of contradictions is to negate the utility of reason in trying to understand this mantra and the Atman. If Atman is beyond experience, then the limitation of our experience needs to be pointed out. This mantra accomplishes that beautifully. It not only describes the Atman but also in the process shows Atman to be counter to what our reason normally tell us.

We had asserted about the Unity of the Atman and the Paramatman. If there is only one consciousness that pervades in this Universe, then there is only thing that exists in this world and that is that “super consciousness” or Paramatman.  This mantra points out some qualities of the Paramatman. “It moves and it moves not”. To understand this, let us analyze what movement is. An object which is currently supposed to be at a point A is said to move if it changes the position from A to B where A and B are not identical. I can move from New York to Chicago if I had been in New York at some point and “after” sometime I am at Chicago i.e. there is a temporal separation between the two events viz. my being in New York and my being in Chicago. But what if I am already in Chicago? Does it make sense to say I moved then? Quite clearly No. I need to be in some place away from Chicago to “move” to Chicago. But we just mentioned that the Paramatman is the only thing that is in the Universe. Hence it is everywhere already. That is why it does not make sense to speak about the Paramatman moving  But our inadequate perception sees Duality everywhere. That is why we are aware of two places like New York and Chicago despite the fact that both of them exist only in the Paramatman. Hence it is said that in our inadequate understanding, we would believe that the Paramatman has “moved”. Hence this pithy line captures the inadequacy of our understanding while asserting about the omnipresence of the Paramatman.

The rest of the mantra follows in the same manner and establishes the same theme beyond a shadow of doubt.

Hence change is impossible if there is only one consciousness that exists in this Universe. Hence Time itself becomes an illusion according to this understanding!

Direction of Time

Now if we already concede that there is no time according to vedanta shastra, does it make sense to go quibbling about the direction of this non existent time? The simple answer is No. However, that answer would be insufficient to satisfy many. Hence according to Vedanta, an atman ceases to experience Time as we know it when it annihilates Maya and perceives its identity with the Paramatman. At that point, Time ceases to exist. Hence the beginning of Time (like the beginning of ignorance) is unknown but Time has an end and the end is when the unity of the Atman and the Paramatman is realized. Thus, Time stands exposed as having an innate direction in that it has an end though its beginning is not exactly clear.

Summary and Conclusion

This series of posts have grown much bigger than what I had anticipated initially. But these posts served to illustrate a lot of central concepts in Hinduism and hence provide a theme to this blog itself. I would keep referring to these discussions as we talk about other things. Till then. Shivoham! Shivoham!

raja shankar kolluru

To describe myself as a manifestation of the supreme spirit may sound too bombastic. But that is what we all are. I am reminded of the story of a great sage who was reading the Upanishads. He was asked as to what he was reading. To which he replied that he is reading about his own glories. This blog especially is an offshoot of all my religious ruminations over the years.

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2 Responses

  1. seshadri says:

    Stephen Hawking has talked about the three arrows of time in his book ‘a brief history of time’ namely the thermodynamic,psychological and the cosmological.While the laws of science do not distinguish between the forward and the backward directions of time,the ‘three arrows’ do distinguish between the past and future.He goes on to argue that all three arrows must point in the same direction ie from bacward to forward(past to future,increasing entropy and an expanding universe)for any intelligent life to exist.

    At a philosophical level,J Krishnamurti has dwelt extensively about the illusion of psychological time in his conversation with David Bohm(physicist who was a student of Einstein) in the book ‘The Ending of Time’and how humans mistakenly partition time due to the illusion of thought.Indian rishis have called it Maya(thought is a neurobiological disorder said U G Krishnamurti)

  2. Thanks for the quotes. By the way, I did realize that I did not quite establish a direction of time in this post. Hence I went ahead and added a new paragraph which now becomes the penultimate paragraph (the one titled Direction of Time).

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