The Hindu notion of cosmic time consists of four major cycles, yugas, manvantaras, kalpas, and the full life of the creator deity Brahma. There are four yugas with decreasing lengths [satya yuga (the most dharmic yuga), treta yuga, dvapara yuga, and kali yuga (the least dharmic yuga)], and each cycle of four is called mahayuga. Seventy one mahayugas is equal to one manvantara, and fourteen manvantaras is equal to one kalpa. The life of Brahma is made up of 36,000 kalpas and the same amount of nights. This is the “traditional Puranic model” (Morales) and is the most widely agreed upon.
A manvantara is ruled by a Manu, and “each Manu has a distinct group of sages, gods, Indra, and so on to help him with his duties” (Saraswati 33). Manus are the first man of each manvantara. They are of the ksatriya class and are the father to that human race. The Brahma Purana, [the Puranas are a genre of non-Vedic texts] lists each Manu of the manvantaras of the present yuga by name. In chronological order they are Svayambhuva, Svarocisa, Uttama, Tamasa, Raivata, Caksusa, Vaivasvata, Savarni, Raibhya, Raucya, “and four Merusavarnis” (Shastri and Bhati 29-30), although some of these names are different in other Puranas. The Manu of our present manvantara is Vaivasvata. The Brahma Purana also outlines the children of each Manu as well as the sages that will accompany them. Svayambhuva is believed to be the son of Brahma, and is sometimes called Manu, because he was the first Manu of the first manvantara of the present yuga. He believed by some to be the author of the Dharmasastra [also sometimes called the The Laws of Manu. This book outlines how to live dharmically, and includes details on the class and caste systems, the stages of life, and the goals of life]. The Encyclopedia Britannica compares Svayambhuva to the figures of Adam and Noah in Abrahamic texts, because he was the first man, like Adam, and he also survived a great flood with the help of a fish [an avatar of Visnu], like Noah (Encyclopedia Britannica: “Manu”).
Along with a Manu, each manvantara has a new Indra as well. Indra is generally known as the Vedic god of thunder and storms, father of Arjuna in the Mahabharata, and the king of heaven. However, Indra is also a title that can be earned through extreme dedication. Just like humans and animals, gods and demons are subject to karma and samsara (the cycle of rebirth), and so those who do extremely good actions, receive a good rebirth, like the role of Indra (Zimmer 7). The role of Indra is the king of the gods. In the myth “The Parade of Ants,” a brahmin boy visits Indra and tells him about the cosmic time cycles, and how there have been many Indras before him, and there will be many more after him. He tells him that “when twenty eight Indras have expired, one Day and Night of Brahma has elapsed” (Zimmer 6). There is also an old man that comes into Indra’s palace, and says that for every Indra that falls, one of his chest hairs falls out. The reason behind the title is that there is a parade of ants walking through the palace, and the brahmin boy tells Indra (after some prying), that the ants all used to be Indras themselves. The story concludes with a summary of how Indra was too prideful, was taken down a notch, and learned his role in the grand cycles of time (Zimmer 11). It is not only a summary of the cosmic cycles, but also an existential look at life.
These units of cosmic time are not exclusive to Hinduism. Jainism and Buddhism also use them, but they are slightly different. Jains believe in cyclical time, but without periods of destruction between any divisions, and they also use terms like koti and sagaropamas (Rocher 96). There is no specific amount of human or god years in either of these divisions. In Buddhism, they use mahakalpas, which are similar to yugas in the way that their quality declines with each one, and that there are four in total (Rocher 96). They divide the mahakalpas into 20 antarakalpas. Ludo Rocher describes the 20th antarakalpa as containing “4 brief periods of increase, and 4 equally brief periods of decrease. These periods are, once again, designated with the names of the Hindu yugas: kali, dvapara, treta, and krta in an ascending period, and [the reverse order] in a descending period” (Rocher 97). However, of these three, cosmic time is the most important to Hindus. Rocher concludes that Jains seem to prefer to “live in the moment” and focus on what happens while they themselves are alive. Louis de la Vallee-Poussin also says that the cycles are not essential to Buddhist philosophy (Rocher 98).
With the exception of the yugas, at the end of each cycle there is an event of destruction marking it as such. Between the four yugas, there is no specific indication of the end. It is believed that the Kali Yuga began in 3102 BCE, not long after the war in the Mahabharata, an epic that describes a battle for the kingdom Kurukshetra between two groups of cousins. However, according to the Bhagavatam Purana, at the end of the Kali Yuga, “Displaying His [Visnu’s] unequaled effulgence and riding with great speed, He will kill by the millions those thieves who have dared dress as kings” (Bhagavatam Purana SB 220.127.116.11-20). This passage signifies the belief that Visnu [the preserver deity] will manifest as the avatar Kalki and destroy those who do not act dharmically righteously. In doing so, he would leave behind only the most pious Hindus and thus would begin a new mahayuga, beginning with the new satya yuga.
At the end of a manvantara, the universe is partially destroyed, though there is some disagreement on what exactly happens during this period of destruction. In An Introduction to Esoteric Principles, McDavid describes this as “a reverse process of withdrawal” in which the universe is reverted to its simplest form (McDavid 7). However, the philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy (1967) believes the earth is flooded, and a few select beings are kept alive to repopulate the following manvantara (Morales). The Handbook of Hindu Mythology calls this destruction laya [dissolution], the destruction between kalpas pralaya, and the final destruction at the end of the life of Brahma mahapralaya (Williams 39). The period between manvantaras, when the universe is in a dissolved state, is called sandyaa (Mohapatra, Dash, and Padhy 436). There are fifteen sandyaa periods, one before a manvantara, fourteen in between them, and one before the end of a kalpa.
At the end of a kalpa, there is pralaya, which is often translated as “dissolution.” In the Brahma Purana, it is described as simply “the living beings will be burned by the sun” (Shastri and Bhati 32). Even this destruction is temporary, however, because the living beings from that kalpa can still be reincarnated in the next day or night of Brahma (Morales).
At the end of the life of Brahma [also sometimes called a mahakalpa (Williams 38)], everything is completely destroyed. After this mahapralaya, everything is fully absorbed into Siva (Williams 161) and living creatures can no longer be reincarnated. In the myth called “The Annihilation”, there is a man and a woman who are dining on the eve of pralaya and are surrounded by natural disasters such as storms, hurricanes, and earthquakes. The woman, who is representative of Parvati, is worried about the end of her life, but the man, who is representative of Siva tells her not to worry and is very optimistic. He says “what imagined an independent form, different from you, that was not in existence, it was an aberration” (Williams 159). This is a reference to brahman [the true nature of reality], and how the destruction is meant to happen.
The Handbook of Hindu Mythology cites the Mahabharata and the Manu-Smrti as possibly the earliest “scriptures to record what later became the prevailing view of [Hindu] mythic time” (Williams 37). Ganita [a sage] is credited with the calculation of the four yugas into human years in the Anusasana Parva [a book in the Mahabharata that talks about the duties of the people, as well as certain laws and rules Hindus should follow]. Ludo Rocher also acknowledges these two texts as the possible origin for the yuga kalpa system (Rocher 98). That being said, he believes that the manvantaras were introduced later and “forced to fit” due to their inexact alignment with the yugas and kalpas (Rocher 95). Because of the lack of mentions of cosmic time in the Vedas, it is generally unanimously concluded that the system came into use in post-Vedic India, but scholars such as David Pingree think the system may have been adapted from other cultures such as the Babylonians or the Greeks (Rocher 99-100).
Cyclical time is not unique to Hinduism, but the specific Hindu version is very distinctive and certainly the most detailed of the other Indian time cycles. Yugas are especially relatable, as they are the most calculable, and the end of the third yuga is considered to be within “recent” history. Manvantaras and kalpas are a way to make the lives of gods easier to understand as well as creating an explanation for the beginning and inevitable end of the universe.
Board of Scholars (2001) Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Volume 33: The Brahma Purana. Edited by J. L. Shastri and G. P. Bhati. Delhi: Motilal Banaridass Publishers Private Limited.
Dasa, Prahlada “Bhagavatam Purana: Symptomes of the Kali Yuga” in BhaktiVedanta Vedabase. SB 12.2.1- SB 12.2.44. Accessed October 15, 2018.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010) “Manu” in The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed October 4, 2018.
McDavid, William Doss (2007) An Introduction to Esoteric Principles. Wheaton: Theosophical Society in America.
Mohapatra, Ratnaprava, S.K. Dash, and S.N. Padhy (2017) “Ethnobiographical Studies from Manusmrti: XII Facts on Dissolution (Pralaya) and Geological Time Scale.” Journal of Human Ecology 12:433-439. Accessed October 25, 2018. Doi: 10.1080/09709274.2001.11907650.
Morales, Joseph (1997) “The Hindu Theory of World Cycles in Light of Modern Science”. Karma and Reincarnation: a Philosophical Examination. Accessed October 15, 2018.
Rocher, Ludo. 2004. “Concepts of Time in Classical India” in Time and Temporality in the Ancient World. Edited by Ralph M. Rosen, 91-105. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Saraswati, H. H. (2013) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. San Rafael: Mandala Publishing.
Williams, George M. (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Williams, Richard A. and Sankar, Jaya (1978) “The Annihilation (Pralaya).” Journal of South Asian Literature 14:157-161. Accessed October 20, 2018.
Zimmer, Heinrich Robert (1962) “Eternity and Time: the Parade of Ants” in Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilisation. Edited by Joseph Campbell, 3-11. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Sharma, P.R.P. (2007) Encyclopaedia of Puranas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.
This article was written by: Sydney Savage (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its contents.