Time is a very important concept for many of the world religions, and for the Hindu tradition the concept of time is explained through yuga. The concepts of the yugas were first mentioned in the popular Mahabharata epic, as well as the Manusmrti (Simms, 71). The cycle of time is divided up into four different sections. Each section is known as a yuga, or time period (Simms, 71). Each successive period brings the world into a greater state of decreased dharma, because through each cycle the earth gets further and further away from the Absolute (Simms, 71). Within every subsequent era there is less order, cosmic law, and the life expectancy of humans is shortened (Simms, 71). A metaphor commonly used to explain this dharma is the image of a bull. In the very beginning of the cycle, the animal is strong and sturdy. This is the stage closest to the Absolute (the krtayuga). At the end of each yuga, one leg deteriorates from the bull and makes it more unsteady than it was before. After the first yuga, the bull has only three legs (tretayuga), in the third yuga it will only have two legs (dvaparayuga) and by the last yuga, it will be teetering on only one leg (the most unstable time known as the kaliyuga period). The bull will eventually collapse and the cycle will start all over again (White, 290).
Each cycle is divided in ten parts within the four yugas. The first yuga is known as the krtayuga and composes the first four units, then there is the tretayuga, which lasts three units, the daparayuga which lasts two units and finally the kaliyuga which is only made up of one unit. Each yuga originates from the numbers in a Vedic dice game vis-a-vis mentioned in the Mahabharata (White, 288). In the game, a krta was the number each player needed to achieve in order to win. It was known as the best throw. Krta was the complete throw with no remaining numbers. Any other throw that did not result in krta had remainders of one, two, or three dice. The treta became the next best throw after the krta throw which resulted in three leftover dice. After that, there was the dvapara outcome (two dice left over) and finally the kali throw (which only had one leftover dice) (White, 288). The kali throw was known as the most unfavorable throw.
Each of the four different yugas are combined to make one mahayuga (Simms,72). A mahayuga is a massive unit where one age of the gods are made (Glucklich, 31). A thousand mahayugas make up one day of Brahma. A kalpa is one day of Brahman the creator-god and a thousand caturyugas make up one day of Brahman (Washburn, 63). Creation lasts until the end of a thousand caturyugas (Washburn, 43). During the day the heavens, as well as the planets rotate to produce both existence and destruction. It is at night that the moving planets and heavens rest (Kennedy, et al, 276).
The first stage, the krtayuga (or satyayuga) is a pure state in existence. It is known as the “age of truth” and the “Golden Age” (Simms, 71) and is characterized by simplicity, timelessness and serenity. It is the closest era to the Absolute and virtue is 100% complete (Cairns, 75). There is a sense of eternity and fluidity and there is no sickness. Death and sin are not in existence and people are very moral. This state of bliss lasts the longest of the four yugas, extending for 1,728,000 years (Cairns, 75).
Tretayuga, the second stage, begins the deterioration of existence and marks the end of the “Golden Age”. Cosmic dharma is disturbed, however still intact and there is a greater separation from the Absolute. Things are still mostly pure, even though sin has been introduced and virtue is reduced to 75%. Tretayuga lasts for 1,296,000 years (Cairns, 75)
The dvaparayuga is marked by an increase of evil and further loss of dharmic balance. Dharma not only decreases, but the deterioration is also accelerated in this yuga (Simms, 71). Virtue is decreased by ½, and the human lifespan also decreases. This stage lasts for 863,000 years.
The last stage, the kaliyuga is our current era and lasts only 432,000 years. It is believed civilization has been in this era ever since the Mahabharata war occurred, as well as the death of Krsna (Simms, 71). In this stage social order is broken down and there is a need for royal authority to keep rules and dharma intact (Glucklich, 31). The ruled however question authority, confusing and corrupting social order (Sen, 91). Kali (the goddess of death and destruction) makes men deceitful and greedy (Sen, 91). There is an increase of human death, time goes by at a rapid pace and there is a massive spiritual and physical breakdown in humans (Simms, 71). There is little respect for God or Brahman (Sen, 91) and it is the “age of strife” (Simms, 73). It is the shortest sequence of time in the cycle. Human virtue is decreased to ¼ and there is enormous suffering worldwide (Cairns, 72).
These cycles are consistently repeated until a mahayuga is completed (also known as a kalpa and is composed of 100 yuga cycles) (Simms, 72). Once there is a mahayuga, the universe is destroyed (pralaya), normally through a massive flood, before it starts at the first krtayuga once again (Thapar, 25). This sequence is repeated endlessly and there is an idea that the cycle really is without a beginning or an end (Sen, 126).
Cairns, Grace, E. (1970) “Social Progress and Holism in T. M. P. Mahadevan’s Philosophy of History”. Philosophy East and West; 20; 1; p. 73-82.
Glucklich, Ariel (1984) “Karma and pollution in Hindu dharma: distinguishing law from nature”. Contributions to Indian Sociology; 18; 25; p. 25-33.
Hopkins, Washburn E. (1903) “Epic Chronology” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 24; 7-56
Kennedy, E. S., Engle, Susan, Wamstad, Jeanne (1965) “The Hindu Calendar as Described in Al Buruni’s Masudic Canon” Journal of Near Eastern Studies; 24; 3; 274-284
Sen, Amiya, P. (1998) “Bhakti Paradigms, Syncretism and Social Restructuring in Kaliyuga: A Reappraisal of Some Aspects of Bengali Religious Culture”. Studies in History; 14; 89.
Simms, Robert (1992-1993) “Aspects of Cosmological Symbolism in Hindusthani Musical Forms”. Asian Music, 24; 1; p. 67-89.
Thapar, Romila (1991) “Genealogical Patterns as Perceptions of the Past”. Studies in History; 7; 1; p. 1-35.
White, David G. (1989) “Dogs Die”. History of Religions, 28; 4; p. 283-303.
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Article written by: Lauren O’Dwyer (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.