Time Lines and Circles

By Swami Tripurari

Until the dawn of Christianity, all of the Eastern and most of the ancient world conceived of time as cyclical, not linear. In the West, Augustine was among the first to insist on linear time as opposed to cyclical, although arguably the seeds of his insights were drawn from the Old Testament. Augustine was confident that time was real, linear, and going somewhere. It was increasingly filled with meaningful content, and nothing that occurred along its course would ever be repeated. In Christianity there is a sense of a “fall from grace”—being thrown out of paradise, to live in sin until Armageddon—a belief that works well with linear time. But Christianity aside, much of Western society, both religious and secular, has been driven by a linear notion for quite some time, drawing a diagonal line through cyclical time in minds of many.

On the other hand, the Hindu rishis were perhaps the first to articulate the concept of cyclical time. Recorded in the Upanisads, their experience, which caused them to conceive of time and nature as cyclical, was not merely their observance of the cycling of the seasons or the coming and going of day and night that may have influenced other ancient cultures to think cyclically. Rather, the rishis conceived of time and nature as cyclic because they located an immovable center around which they observed all things coming and going. That center was themselves: consciousness, the atma, the observer, the witness distinct from matter, around which the world of matter circled. The rishis saw this cycling microcosmically around themselves and macrocosmically around the Paramatma—the Godhead—expanding and contracting in beginningless cycles. Their world was neither a geo- nor helio-centric experience, but rather an atma-centric, and by extension, a Paramatma-centric experience. For the rishis, nature was a consciousness-driven reality rotating endlessly—the beginningless play of samsara—release from which involves becoming properly centered—turning inward.

Despite the modern sense that time is marching straight ahead, the ancient, cyclic notion of time has not disappeared from Western society altogether. In Western philosophy Friedrich Nietzsche posited an “eternal recurrence,” and before him Schopenhauer addressed it as well. More recently, physicists have entertained and in some cases embraced the notion of eternal recurrence. The transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics is a good example; the cyclical universe of Princeton physicist Paul J. Steinhardt, who suggests that space and time may have always existed in an endless cycle of expansion and rebirth is another.

Indeed, the three main theories that concern physicists today—classical physics, relativity, and quantum physics—arguably all subtly point to cyclical time, even while the idea of linear time remains a practical one by which we accomplish much. Euclidean mathematics may have utility, but is it real? No one has ever observed a straight line in nature—in the Earth sphere we call home.

Thus the arrow of linear time finds itself surrounded by cyclical time: notions about cyclical time predate those of linear time (Upanisads), appear within its midst (Nietzsche), and follow after it (quantum theory). A line has been drawn, but some doubt circles it, bringing its validity into question.

In the end, or if we ever turn full circle, perhaps only time itself will tell us which way it moves. But let’s look at the two, lines and circles, and see what we can draw from them.

A circle has a pattern and exhibits rhythm and order, whereas a line has none of these characteristics. While a line may be accidental or random, a circle always displays rationality and purpose. If the process of nature is to be defined, it must have a pattern. A series of changes that has no beginning or end and no purpose is patternless. Any particular point in a line either stands by itself or in relation to its entire past. If it stands by itself, it cannot be defined, owing to its being unrelated. If it stands in relation to its entire past, it also cannot be defined because its entire past is unknowable, being ultimately untraceable.

If, however, the process of nature is cyclical, every point in the circle is part of a coherent system and thus is rationally understandable. The problem of infinite regress from which a linear conception suffers need not trouble us when conceiving the world order as cyclical from the yogic perspective of Hinduism. The logical fallacy of infinite regress occurs when understanding of any member of a series is dependent upon knowledge of its antecedent. This occurs when the time-driven process of nature is conceived of as linear. However, if it is conceived of as cyclical, then every member of the series is understandable in light of the entire process, which is complete and consistent within itself. The Upanisads posit a cyclical universe that expands and contracts, followed by another expanding and contracting universe, ad infinitum, but each cycle is complete in itself, and its complete understanding is not dependent upon knowledge of the previous cycle.

But so much for abstract thought. Let’s be practical and ask a real question. According to Stephen Hawking, “The problem of the origin of the universe is a bit like the old question: Which came first, the chicken, or the egg?” Linear time cannot answer this question, but Zen can with its Hindu-derived cyclical notion of time.

If you choose the chicken, you know that a chicken comes from an egg. If you choose the egg, you know that an egg comes from a chicken. We could go back in time trying to find the beginning of time, but that’s impossible. There is always a chicken before an egg and an egg before a chicken into infinity. With this kind of thinking, there is no answer. We are bound by linear time.

Now imagine a circle consisting of a chicken followed by an egg then a chicken then an egg, etc. until the circle is completed. Then try to find which is first the chicken or the egg. The obvious and conclusive answer is of course “neither,” an answer that cannot be logically arrived at in linear time.

So much for the practical. Time to end this article where it began: in the East, in spiritual India. What time is it? Kali-yuga, the time cycle/age of hypocrisy, when yantra-vijnana—the science of machines and technology—rules, and humans try to change the nature of nature. Does the good here outweigh the bad? Only time will tell, but the idea that the linear arrow of time has put a hole in, and let the air out, of ancient superstitious notions of cyclical time is surely one of the past. Time to move on and come full circle. If we are ever to stop going “round and round and round in the circle game,” we need to find that around which the world rotates. We need to stop talking in circles and move along a line straight to the center—to the Self.


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10 Responses to Time Lines and Circles

  1. Maharaja, doesn’t time move forward as well as cyclical? Lord Brahma has a life of 100 years. The cycle of seasons does not preclude that time also moves forward toward the end of Lord Brahma’s lifetime.
    So, as usual, Krishna (time I am) is both cyclical and linear moving forward in the lifetime of Lord Brahma.
    None of us are going to become babies again and relive this life over. Each Life is a linear march toward the destination end of the universe time. This life will not be repeated in a circle of time, rather it is a point in time that will never be repeated.
    Time, even though having cyclical seasons, also moves forward through the 100 years of Lord Brahma’s life.
    Then again at that time, there will be no material time – cyclical or linear.
    Time is neither linear or cyclical in the ultimate issue because time is Krishna and Krishna is neither a line or a circle.

    • Yes, of course time moves forward. The idea here is that in cyclical Hindu time there, for example, there is no beginning and no end, whereas is Christian linear time time begins and time ends. Christ comes once, but Krsna comes again and again. Imagine if time were cyclical and thus Christ came again and again. What would that do to orthodox Christianity?

      • Yes Maharaja, but doesn’t time “end” at the end of Lord Brahma’s life? That would be material time I mean, not spiritual time. Then it starts all over again with a new material manifestation? So, is the “Christian” concept of limited linear time somewhat right? Yes, time is eternal, but it is also manifested in partial portions.
        As far as the Christ incarnation coming again, that will never happen. When a Brahma is commissioned on Maha-Vishnu loka it is in his contract that he must incarnate on all seven levels of the universe in a suitable form of the realm. The Christ incarnation was planned long before the actual incarnation.
        This human incarnation of Lord Brahma was the last of the seven contractual incarnations that were stipulated in his Universal commission.

        • But doesn’t time “end” at the end of Lord Brahma’s life? That would be material time I mean, not spiritual time. Then it starts all over again with a new material manifestation?

          Yes, that’s the point it starts over again in a new cycle. A far as Christianity is concerned, it’s best to deal with the orthodox version on this issue.

  2. One religion-related problem with the linear notion of time is the idea that you can get a special treatment or benefit by living in a particular moment of time. For many Christians we live in the End of Days, coming up on the Second Coming of Christ, or similar other ideas relating to the supposed end of the world. Jews pray for the second coming of David, rebuilding of the Temple, or next year in Jerusalem. Or maybe it is not so much a problem if you see such views as a way to motivate people to be more religious.

    In the cyclical time you are where you need to be to fulfill a particular step in your personal evolution. And if you fail, you will get another chance, and another, and another… Cyclical idea of time appeals to people who are more in tune with the world and themselves, who trust the natural course of things and are not looking for shortcuts. Every day is sacred and every day is special. Youth is just as valuable and usefull as old age.

    Whether we are cyclists or linearists depends on our consciousness and taste.

  3. swami bv tripurari says:
    September 7, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Well that is different religion.

    Christians believe that accepting in faith Christ Jesus as personal savior that they will be cleansed of their sins and redeemed to God through Jesus. That is what Peter and Paul and a few other disciples manufactured after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.

    Jesus taught that salvation would be attained though Faith in the Universal Father and constant communion with the Supersoul through internal realization of the indwelling Father fragment we know as the Paramatma.

    Jesus taught the process of constant awareness of and prayer to the indwelling Father fragment in a life of wholesale service to mankind through teaching and preaching the truth of the Supreme Lord who dwells in the heart. In Christ’s ascension, the Supersoul joins with the soul rather than the misguided notion of the soul becoming one with the Paramatma.

    When the Supersoul releases the full compliment of mercies intended for us, we attain to a divine status in the divine realm of the divine. That is what Jesus really taught.

    So, I guess that is a different religion, but really there is only one religion and that is to love God and everyone is trying to do that whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jew or Vaishnava.

    Some are farther along the path, but everyone is on the path to knowing and loving the Universal Father (Maha-Vishnu/Paramatma).

  4. KB das quote: “It’s not really best to stay with the Orthodox views anymore when in fact the Celestial authorities have granted a new revelation of the truth of Christ and that must be proclaimed against the religion manufactured by Peter and Paul.”

    KB das, you keep quoting your “celestial authorities”. This is no evidence for anything at all. Anyone can quote celestial authorities at any time to support anything at all! Could you please quote guru, sastra, sadhu or at least well researched historical evidences and logic for your points.

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