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Vaishnava Philosophy
"Time I Am"
The destroyer of worlds

Nothing is more familiar to us than time, yet nothing is more unknown. We all know that time exists, that it surrounds us, and that it constantly passes by, but exactly what time is has remained an unknown secret to most of mankind.

Nothing rules as strongly over our daily affairs as time, yet amazingly, we think very little about it. Nonetheless, our existence is always completely dependent on time. Time is moving us, molding us, stealing from us, and ultimately time will destroy us. Time unceasingly pushes us forward and forces us to obey, leaving us no chance to stop, change, or even influence its course.

We have learned to calculate and measure time, to divide it up and save or spend it. Still, we are so pushed around by it that we have no time to think about the definition or purpose of all-pervading, all-powerful time. We do not know what time is or what it is here for. We usually accept its presence without questioning why we are bound by it, what we are supposed to learn from it, or how we can get free from its clutches. We will even proudly claim it to be "our time," as if it were our creation or our possession, not realizing that we are its servants.

Thus, asking about the nature of time is not merely some superficial or theoretical question for unworldly scientists or philosophers. Rather, this question leads us directly to the very essence of our lives. It is a "to be or not to be" question, a question about life and death, a question about the origin and purpose of the manifested world and our existence within it.

We should realize the flickering, temporary nature of things created within time, including our bodies and our thoughts, feelings, desires, activities, and achievements. This realization is not meant to throw us into an ocean of ignorant lamentation or ignite a passionate thirst for action but to open our eyes to the dimension of timelessness, or eternity.

Eternity is not an unlimited expansion of material time. Rather, it is transcendental to material time and is the final destination of human existence. In this sense, every sincere discussion about time ultimately has to lead us toward religion, and every attempt to understand the time phenomena separate from God has to fail.

What Is Time?

Modern science and technology are mainly concerned with calculating and measuring time, whereas defining the time phenomena has always been the concern of philosophy and theology.

Homer, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Seneca, and Plotinus are among thinkers of classical antiquity who tried to grasp the meaning of time. Then in the Middle Ages, St. Augustine, one of the most influential fathers of the Church, delved deeply into this subject. And in the modern era, physicists and mathematicians like Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes, Newton, and later also Poincare and Einstein tried to give an adequate explanation of time, as well as philosophers like Kant, Hegel, Marx, James, Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger.

Without going into their theories, we can conclude that ultimately they remained unable to give a solid definition or come to a solid understanding of time.

Time as the Presence of God

In the Vedic scriptures of ancient India, time (in Sanskrit called kala) is one of the five basic subjects of philosophy. (The other four are God, the soul, the world, and karma.) In the Bhagavad-gita, the main text of Vedic philosophy, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, answers the time question with only two words. He says, kalo'smi, "Time I am."

Thus the Vedic definition of time is the all-pervading "presence of God" within this world. In other words, time is one of the possibilities by which man can experience and realize God. God is time, and the existence of time is evidence for the existence of God. Without God there would be no time, and without time there would be no world. St. Augustine said, non in tempore sed cum tempore Deus creavit caela et terram, "God created Heaven and Earth not within time but through it."

Time was not created by a "big bang" at the beginning of the universal manifestation, as claimed by certain modern atheistic theories. Rather, God, functioning as the Time Factor, created the universe. Thus time independently exists beyond the material creation, and time continues to exist after the dissolution of the universe. (The Vedic cycles of time are discussed in another essay.)

Since time is an aspect of God, it is not passive -- simply "passing by." Rather, it is an active agent that impels everything to move toward destruction (the Sanskrit root of the word kala is kal, meaning "to impel"). Time is the most powerful thing in this world. It pushes everything into the past, and no one can stop it or escape its influence. Therefore the Vedic scriptures say that time is the all-pervading aspect of God visible to everyone.

Is Time Relative?

Some people say that time is relative, but this is incorrect and easily misunderstood. Since time is an aspect of God, it is absolute and universally valid. Only our perception and measurement of time is relative due to our bodies.

For example, a human body experiences time in a different way than a mayfly body. Similarly, the Vedic scriptures describe living entities within this universe (demigods) with lifetimes much longer than ours. Although their relative perception of time is completely different, they nonetheless experience it similarly. It also pushes them forward through childhood, youth, old age, and finally death. Even Lord Brahma, the highest living entity within this universe, whose life span is calculated as some 311 trillion solar years, grows old and dies.

This Vedic understanding of time thus solves a philosophical and scientific problem that has occupied the thoughts of European thinkers for many centuries: Is there, as Isaac Newton proposed, only one absolute time within the cosmos, or are there many different, relative forms of time, as stated by the modern theory of relativity?

The Vedic answer is that both ideas are simultaneously correct. From the absolute point of view (God's), there is only one universally valid time. But different living entities perceive this absolute time relatively, according to the kind of material body they have, as well as the speed with which they travel though space, and their geographical position.

Material and Spiritual Time

We daily experience time in three sequential phases: past, present, and future, and time always has a beginning and an end. We call this flickering, temporary time historical, or human, time (as opposed to cosmic time, which rotates in huge cycles). In Vedic terms, we can also call it material time (as opposed to spiritual time in the spiritual world).

The insidious thing about material time is that it remains invisible to us. We cannot directly perceive it, just as we cannot directly perceive the presence of God within the cosmos or the presence of the soul within the body. But similar to God and the soul, we can understand time by its symptoms -- the constantly changing past, present, and future that subjugates everything and everyone.

In the Bhagavad-gita (11.32) Krishna says, "Time I am, the great destroyer of the worlds, and I have come here to destroy all people." Thus we can understand time and God as the great destroyer, causing us to lament over the loss of our past belongings and to hanker for or worry about what the future may bring. In the material world, the past and future seem better than the present because the anxiety of impending loss robs the present of satisfaction.

But we are not forced to understand time and God only in this way. Religion offers us a much more pleasant way to realize God and time. The Vedic scriptures explain that in the spiritual world, the kingdom of God, time is ever-existing presence. The qualities of past and future and their bad effects (destruction, frustration, boredom, anticipation) do not exist in the spiritual world as they do here.

Spiritual time orders the succession of continuous spiritual pleasures experienced in relationship with the Personality of Godhead. This pleasurable relationship engages the living entities of the spiritual world in complete absorption upon their loveable object. Although everything there is absolute eternal presence, events occur in a sequence of ever-blissful variety.

Therefore the Vedic religion asks us to use our time within the framework of the material world in the loving service of God. By doing so, we will qualify ourselves to receive His blessings. And at the end of our present material body, we can, by the strength of His blessings, be allowed to go back home to the spiritual world where we belong, which eternally lies beyond material time and space.

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