By Devadatta Kali Jaya
Devadatta Kali Jaya (David Nelson) has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular lecturer at Vedanta Societies as well as a contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, Devadatta Kali is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning and The Veiling Brilliance: Meditations on Shakti.
What is time? It is something that plays a huge role in the way we experience our everyday lives. In fact, without time, life as we know it would be impossible. Time is something that is always with us, that appears to be close at hand—a palpable reality. Sometimes we stress out over not having enough of it. We say we are pressed for time or are racing against the clock to get something done. Sometimes we stress out under unpleasant circumstances and think, If only the clock would move faster! In those cases we say that time weighs heavy on our hands, but is it possible to touch or to hold time? We speak of spending time and saving time. Like money, time spent is time gone, but unlike money, time saved is not tucked safely away for later use. No matter what we do, time moves on. But can we say that we actually see time passing, as we would see a river flowing by? When we watch the hands of clock, is it time that we see moving or only the device that measures it?
This leads us to wonder if this mysterious thing called time is a thing at all or merely an abstraction. Does it exist as something in its own right or only as an idea in our minds? You can argue it both ways. Although the clock seems to indicate that time is an objective, measurable reality, moving steadily forward at an invariable pace, we nevertheless perceive time at different speeds. “Time flies when you’re having fun” is a common adage, yet a moment of anxious expectation drags on and on, and a minute can seem like an hour.
For being so powerful a force in our lives, time proves rather elusive when we try to define it. Because our thoughts and the speech we use to communicate those thoughts involve words, then words are worthy of our attention. Words are carriers of meaning, and often they convey a good deal more than we give them credit for. In ordinary usage the word time can refer to when something happens and for how long it lasts. A dictionary I consulted defines time as “a measurable period or interval between two events, or a period or interval during which something exists, happens, or acts.” Another dictionary says that time is “a finite extent of continued existence.” Both definitions provide plenty of food for thought. First of all, time is measurable or quantifiable. Next, it is some sort of duration or expanse between two of something else. So, for there to be time, other things also have to exist.
The verb exist is the key. In general usage it means “to be” or “to have reality.” But this word comes from the Latin existere, which literally means “to step forth, to emerge.” If we respect the etymology, then technically to exist means “to be in a given condition or state or place, to manifest in a specific way.” So, if time is “a finite extent of continued existence,” that means that time and manifestation are inseparable. Whatever forms a part of the universe—be it a living creature or an inanimate object—exists in time.
The word part provides another clue. It turns out that the English word time ultimately derives from a root meaning “to part,” “to separate,” or “to divide.” Here is a hint that time is predicated on division or difference and not on wholeness. Furthermore the word tide derives from the same source as time, and you are all familiar with the saying that “time and tide wait for no man.” It is an observable fact that the tides result from the moon’s gravitational pull; and the moon, with its visible waxing and waning, is the natural basis for our concept of the month, a measurement of time.
The Sanskrit word for “time” is also revealing. Kala derives from the verbal root kal, meaning “count” or “calculate.” Calculate and kala are linguistically related, and the Sanskrit word shows a basic understanding of time as something measurable.
Is time, then, a thing of some sort, an entity having its own reality? Or again, is it merely a matter of our perception? The answer seems to be yes and yes. What is most interesting is that both of these opinions occur universally—in the East and West, in religion and science, in philosophy and the arts. The two views coexist globally and apparently always have.
At a basic level every understanding of time rests on human awareness of change, close up in daily life and farther off in the life of the cosmos. The sun, making its continual journey across the sky, brings the predictable succession of day and night; the moon, waxing and waning, marks the months; the seasons come and go; the years pass; the distant stars and galaxies turn in the vastness of the heavens; and all the while living creatures journey from birth to death.
The religions of the world, ancient and modern alike, present a rich field for the exploration of time. Concerned with the origin, structure, functioning, and ultimate end of the universe, every religion adds the dimension of meaning to the question of time. Since today’s topic was prompted by Easter and Sivaratri, we will focus attention on the ideas of the two religious traditions that these observances represent.
It is safe to say that humankind’s first ideas about time arose from observing the surrounding world. For the earliest people on this earth, knowing about time was a matter of survival. Living as hunter-gatherers, they had to be aware of the change of seasons, of when edible plants would reach maturity and of when the birds and animals they depended on for food would migrate. Later, as pastoralists, people led a nomadic existence, following their flocks to greener pastures as the wheel of the year turned. When women and men settled down in agricultural communities, they had to know when to plant and when to harvest and how to lay aside food for the fallow season. In other words, they had to know what time it was.
Early people recognized that time is cyclical, and they discerned in it an all-embracing and ever-repeating round of creation, sustenance, and dissolution. After winter’s dormancy, spring was a time of birth and renewal. Summer brought growth and fruition, autumn brought ripening and harvest, and winter again brought a period of rest. For early humans, cyclical time was sacred time, concerned not only with survival but also with living meaningfully and harmoniously with the universal process.
An archeologist recently discovered the remains in Goseck, Germany of an enormous henge, consisting of two concentric palisades with openings aligned to indicate the solstices and equinoxes. The Goseck henge is one of many ancient monuments that measured time, but it is now the earliest one we know of. This gigantic solar calendar is seven thousand years old. Moreover, it also served as a ceremonial center.
Our early ancestors devised various rituals as reenactments of the divine functions they saw in nature, and those rituals became a way of ensuring fertility, agricultural abundance, and human well-being as well as spiritual renewal and the mitigation of the unwanted effects of accumulated misdeeds. These basic patterns of thinking, of which the Vedas preserve the earliest textual evidence, live on even in our modern religions worldwide.
Beyond the immediate concerns of the here-and-now, cyclical time applies not only to the ever-turning wheel of the year—for a year is but a tiny measure—but to the ever-repeating life-cycle of the cosmos, which in Indian tradition unfolds over billions of years. The important thing to remember about cyclical time that there is no beginning and no end.
The idea of cyclical time is based on the experience and observation of the natural world. Throughout the millennia it has produced many different calendars and time-keeping systems and has synchronized human activity with the rhythms of nature. But it is not the only way that human beings interpret the phenomenon of time.
In the ancient Israelite religion, which eventually transformed itself into both Judaism and Christianity, the original understanding of time was cyclical. The ancient Israelites introduced, however, a second way of understanding time. The book of Genesis opens with the phrase, “In the beginning.” If there is beginning, it follows logically that there will be an end. That is the premise underlying the Abrahamic worldview found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
How did this view of time arise? When it came to matters of experience other than those related to the natural cycles—let us call them the events of history—the Israelites believed they had a unique relationship with God, and that led them to look for religious meaning in historical happenings. God intervened in worldly affairs, either to reward or to punish human behavior. This understanding eventually developed into a view of time as something that reveals the divine purpose. According to this event-oriented—or linear—concept, which passed into Christianity, time has a beginning, an end, and a purpose.
The Christian view of time is organized around the birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, who stands at the very center of history. That is why the Western calendar keeps track of time in terms of bc and ad. Everything in history is reckoned as happening either before or after the appearance of Jesus Christ in this world. Moreover, in the Christian view, time has an unrepeatable beginning evolving toward a single end, marked by a final judgment and salvation for the deserving. Accordingly time becomes an arena of testing and opportunity in relation to judgment. How a person acts in this life produces eternal consequences. Here Indian thought disagrees. Of course, we are responsible for our actions, and of course actions have consequences, but logically a finite action cannot produce an infinite effect.
As for cyclical time, it has not disappeared entirely from Jewish or Christian thinking but has been reinterpreted according to the over-arching significance of linear time. To give just one example, Easter, marking the death and resurrection of Jesus, coincides with the pagan, cyclically based celebrations of life’s renewal. The name Easter comes from the Germanic goddess Eostre, whose festival was held at the spring equinox. Easter bunnies and Easter eggs figure nowhere in the biblical narrative of Christ’s passion but are universal symbols of fertility and renewal tied to springtime. And in Western Christianity Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.
Independent of any theology, time moves in cycles and also appears to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. These are basic, observable facts. Whatever meaning a given religion chooses to read into them is another matter. The meanings are many and do not all agree, but they all have a common purpose—to teach people how to deal with themselves, with others, with the natural world, and with ever-present time. In religious contexts this matter of time becomes involved with questions of deliverance or salvation, of liberation or enlightenment, depending on what a religion chooses to call it. Common to all of them is the same question: If human life is a journey through time, what lies at the end of the journey?
That brings us to the question of eternity. But to define eternity, don’t we first have to know what time is? To sum up thus far, time seems to be both a measurable, objective reality and a subjective perception. It is a cyclical natural phenomenon, to be sure, although some people claim that in the bigger picture it is also a linear unfolding of a divine plan. In our everyday lives we experience time as change in events and conditions, but we also think of time in terms of continuity and integration. How does this all fit together? Here philosophers, theologians, scientists, and spiritual seekers turn their gaze away from the minute details of the here and now and set their sights toward something grander.
Just as there are different views of time, there are different opinions on eternity. One is that eternity is an endless extension of time—simply time going on forever and ever. The other is that eternity has nothing to do with time; it is utter timelessness. Again, the opinions are not divided along faultlines of East and West, philosophy and religion, or religion and science. Both views are universally present.
The ancient Israelites conceived of eternity as endless time, and the earliest Christians adopted their view. They believed that time is embedded in an eternity that is essentially everlasting time. In the late fourth or early fifth century Augustine promoted the idea that the beginning of the world marks the beginning of time. When we read the entire first verse of Genesis and not just the opening phrase, it says, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” When God created the natural world, he created time along with it, but what was going on before? There is no “before”—only God, who is nontemporal. Augustine accepted the idea that eternity and time are entirely different from each other and that eternity, far from being time extended, is timelessness. He got the idea from the great pagan Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus, whose philosophy has much in common with Vedanta and exerted considerable influence on later Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystics.
The two definitions of eternity seem mutually contradictory—endless time versus timelessness. But consider this: the two definitions show that we cannot think of eternity without the idea of time coming into our awareness. Either we affirm time or negate it. Is there a way out of this dilemma? There is, and we will find it in the nondualistic philosophy of the Hindu mystics of Kashmir who were devotees of the Lord Siva.
Before exploring their ideas, let us first consider the two religious observances that prompted today’s inquiry into time and eternity. Easter and Sivaratri each present a spiritual message in the form of a narrative. Each narrative attempts in its own way to settle once and for all the troubling question of human mortality. Both Easter and Sivaratri are designed to deal with the imperfection of our human condition.
Through an ancient Israelite myth Christianity teaches that this existential imperfection stems from Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God, who has placed us in this present state where life is harsh and bounded by time. Through the doctrine of original sin, introduced by Paul and fully developed later by Augustine, Christianity came to the position that all of humanity carries a burden of guilt. As an old maxim goes, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” For the expiation of sin, the ancient Israelites practiced the ritual slaughter of animals, and in Christian thinking, God’s own son, Jesus, became the ultimate sacrifice, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. One only needs to believe this, and through faith comes salvation. The reward is eternal life in heaven—a restoration to the state of original grace in the divine presence. Thus Easter, which commemorates the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, signals the final triumph over death.
Sivaratri performs a similar function. In different parts of India there are different narratives to explain what Sivaratri commemorates. Some of these are variations on a theme while others are totally unrelated. The story you are about to hear is one I heard from my guru, Swami Prabhavananda, who used to tell it during the annual Sivaratri observance in Hollywood.
Once there was a peasant who eked out a living for his family by going into the forest to gather firewood, which he would sell to the villagers. As time went on, the supply dwindled, and the peasant found it harder and harder to find sufficient wood. He had to work longer and venture ever farther into the forest. One day, after going deeper and deeper into the forest without finding much wood at all, he noticed, to his dismay, that the sun was far past its zenith. It was too late to start back. There was not sufficient time to see him safely home. Darkness would soon descend, and the forest at night was filled with peril. What could he do? Sick at heart, he climbed to the lower branch of a tree and settled there. At least this position off the ground might afford a modicum of safety. After a while he began to feel the pangs of hunger, for he had not eaten since early morning. With darkness descending, he began to feel cold, and as he shivered, some of the leaves shook loose from the tree and fell earthward. The cries of wild animals and other strange sounds echoed through the darkness, increasing his distress, and in fright he wept, his tears falling earthward. All night long he kept awake, crying out to Siva to relieve his misery. And then, in the morning, with the first rays of the sun, he was blessed with the vision of the Lord.
What does this story mean? The poor peasant represents the human soul, wandering in the forest of the world. Notice the role that time plays here. He has a certain amount of time to accomplish his day’s work and head back home. On this particular day time does not work in his favor and in fact traps him in the forest overnight, where the darkness impresses on him the dangers lurking all about. In the same way, the darkness of maya, of our fundamental misunderstanding of the world, causes us the fear and anguish that are an inevitable part of human experience. The peasant fears for his life as he sits awake all night through a painfully slow journey through time. We sometimes recall our own mortality and fear for our lives as we witness the changes around us. The peasant’s predicament represents the human condition when things get rough.
During the night, his shivering causes some leaves to fall from the tree, and his tears likewise fall earthward. Unbeknown to the poor peasant, the tree in which he sought refuge was a vilva tree, sacred to Lord Siva. He sought refuge in a holy place. Not having eaten and not being able to sleep, he fasted and kept vigil and turned his mind toward Siva. Unbeknown to him there was a stone linga at the base of the tree, and when the vilva leaves fell on it and his tears bathed it, he unknowingly was fulfilling the conditions and performing the actions of Siva’s worship. And in the morning he was blessed with the vision of Siva, which means the knowledge of his own true being as the imperishable, ever blissful Self. As a realized soul, he experienced eternity, and that state of spiritual liberation came to him through the Lord’s grace.
Easter and Sivaratri each represent a way of dealing with the suffering and imperfection of human life and with the fact of human mortality. Each presents a solution which involves divine grace. But beyond those generalities, the two represent very different theologies. For Chritians, the resurrection of Christ is the pivotal event in history, a unique event, a universal atonement through which suffering humanity is promised eternal life. For Hindus, the poor peasant who received enlightenment after a terrifying night in the forest does not stand at the center of history but rather represents every embodied soul of every time and place and the inherent possibility in everyone of Self-realization. Here history has no center, and time has no eschatological role. Time is cyclical, with an ever-repeating beginning, middle, and end, and all are equally important. They represent the divine roles of God as creator, sustainer, and dissolver of the universe—as Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva.
This threefold pattern is one of many threefold patterns that underlie much of Indian thought, and they will help us to understand the meaning of time more fully. We already know that our experience of time is connected to the awareness of change, and that where there is change, there has to be difference. Where there is difference there has to be more than one. Now, whenever we think of two, there is always a third implied, and that is something that relates the two. For example, there cannot be a knower and a known without the knowing. All three are essential to the manifestation of the world as we know it.
Also in threes, Indian philosophy speaks of difference (bheda), of unity-in-difference (bhedabheda), and of nondifference (abhedha). Practically synonymous are the designations of duality (dvaita), an intermediate phase (dvaitadvaita), and nonduality (advaita). Without the experience of difference (bheda), we would be absorbed in the undifferentiated bliss of abheda. Without the duality, or better the plurality, of phenomenal existence, we would all abide in our true identity as the oneness of atman, the infinite Self or Siva.
Recently, a friend who knows my interests, sent me an e-mail that illustrates this same point. Two blondes, named Carol and Donna—and by the way, it’s OK for me to tell this story because I was a blond before my hair turned gray—two blondes volunteered at Habitat for Humanity and were put to work siding a house. After a while Donna noticed that Carol would reach into her nail pouch, pull out a nail, look at it, and either hammer it in or toss it over her shoulder.
This intrigued Donna, who asked, “Carol, what are you doing? Why are you throwing those nails away?”
Carol looked at her friend in disbelief that an explanation was even necessary but answered, “About half of these nails are defective. See, they have the head on the wrong end.”
Donna exclaimed, “You silly thing! Those nails aren’t defective! They’re for the other side of the house.”
It may not be readily apparent that this story embodies a profound philosophical teaching, but actually it does. As I said, where there are two, there are three—two polarities and something in between. Carol, who discarded some of the nails for having the head on the wrong end, is operating in the realm of duality or difference. She sees everything in terms of either/or. Either the nail is OK or it isn’t. In our normal mode of thinking we do very much the same thing. But when we see everything in terms of difference and duality, when our views become so rigid that things, events, people, and ideas are either acceptable or not, we miss out on a lot. Look at the ground behind Carol, strewn with perfectly good nails, and see how wasteful this sort of thinking can be. There is nothing wrong with any of the nails Carol threw away; the fault lies in her misperception of them. Her thinking represents the outlook of dvaita (duality)or bheda (difference).
We are tempted to laugh at Donna, who recognized her friend’s folly and pointed out that the nails with the head on the wrong end are for the other side of the house, but there’s some truth in what she says. She represents the intermediate position known as dvaitadvaita or bhedabheda— unity in difference. Her thinking is only halfway bogged down in either/or distinctions. She sees the utility of all the nails. There’s nothing wrong with any of them; it’s just that some are for the other side of the house. In her perception the idea of difference still persists.
So much for dvaita and dvaitadvaita. What about advaita—nonduality? It’s quite simple. If either Carol or Donna represented that state of consciousness, there would be no story.
Now we’re ready to consider the Saiva view of time. The threefold pattern of two poles and something in between comes into play here also. In fact, the nondualistic Saivism of Kashmir is known as the Trikasastra, or triadic teaching. Here the eternal, changeless reality that is called Parabrahman in Advaita Vedanta is called Paramasiva, the supreme Siva. Paramasiva is pure consciousness, the ultimate state of nondual reality beyond even the idea of the Absolute. As Sri Ramakrishna pointed out, “Both the Absolute and the Relative belong to one and the same Reality. It is all one—neither two nor many.” “The manifold has come from the One alone, the Relative from the Absolute. There is a state of consciousness where the many disappears, and the One, as well …. It is impossible to explain Brahman ….” As Sri Ramakrishna also noted, “One cannot think of the Absolute without the relative, or of the Relative without the Absolute.” But that is just the point: the supreme reality is beyond thought, for thought involves difference, change, and sequence—and those are the ingredients of time. About nine hundred years before Ramakrishna, the towering philosopher–seer of Trika Saivism, Abhinavagupta, wrote, “In Paramasiva the yogin rises beyond the experience of Siva, which is the transcendental void, and attains the highest experience of all: Paramasiva is the state of transcendence in immanence and immanence in transcendence.” This is the ultimate state of undivided consciousness, and it reconciles time and eternity. Plotinus, the great Neoplatonic mystic who described spiritual realization as “the flight of the alone to the Alone,” taught that the One is the transcendence of separation, and not the negation of manyness. For him, One is a quality and not a number. Later we will see how this idea worked its way into the understanding of time in Christian theology.
In Trika teaching the sole reality of consciousness experiences itself at three different levels, or in three different modes. The experience of the Divine knowing only itself is referred to as the para, or supreme, experience. There is no creation. But what about the creation? The world and all its living beings are made of the same reality of consciousness and exist in it, but the world is consciousness experienced as divided, differentiated, and conditioned. This state is called apara, “not supreme.” The universe is Siva’s own self-expression, consciously projected out of his own overflowing joy, born of his own sense of wonder (camatkara), and willingly entered into in a spirit of spontaneous playfulness. Siva does this through the power of maya, which is his own power of self-limitation. Maya is neither para nor apara but constitutes the intermediate state of experience known as parapara.
The reason that time is so hard to define is that it belongs to this inbetween state. Advaita Vedanta teaches that maya is neither real nor wholly unreal but indefinable (anirvacaniya). With a slightly different take, the Trikasastra teaches that the one reality, which is consciousness, has the above-mentioned three levels of experience. The supreme or para level is also called suddhadhvan, the pure order. This is the experience of unity—of nondifference (abheda), of nonduality (advaita), of pure consciousness-in-itself, of pure being. The not-supreme, or apara, level is called asuddhadhvan, the impure order. This is the experience of manyness. In this state being is experienced as our day-to-day existence. Note the semantic distinction between being and existence that was pointed out earlier. Being simply is; existence is being in a conditioned state. Between the poles of transcendental being-in-itself and phenomenal existence lies the intermediate or pure-impure level of consciousness, the suddhasuddhadhvan, otherwise known as maya.
To repeat, Trika Saivism regards maya as Siva’s own power of limitation. It works in various ways, and the one that concerns us here is the cosmic principle called kala. Through his kalasakti, his power of time, Lord Siva appears to limit his own eternality, his nityatva, in order to participate in temporal existence. Through the power of time Siva manifests all things, sustains them, and dissolves them. All the while, Siva knows himself as eternal being, infinite and unchanging, but that same divine consciousness, in the conditioned state, sees itself as a host of finite souls—as all of us, living out our finite spans of existence in time. To us time may appear as the frightening devourer of all things. Thinking of Siva as presiding over cosmic dissolution, we call him Kalabhairava, the terror of time personified. But as the master of time, Siva is imperishable eternality, untouched by time’s movement.
As the expression of divine power, time appears both as successive moments and as duration, as change and continuity. In that sense Siva’s own commanding power of time makes things orderly. To analyze further, the succession (krama) of time depends on difference, and the manifestation of the universe is an expression of difference or multiplicity. In Trika philosophy this manifestation is called abhasa. In general the word means “splendor,” “light,” “color,” or “appearance.” As a technical term of the Trikasastra it can mean the projection of consciousness, the phenomenality of sensory experience, and even a luminous display. Think of abhasa in terms of your TV screen. The images it produces are endlessly varied, yet the screen itself remains the constant medium on which and from which those images shine. In the same way, all the drama and comedy of this universe shine forth in successive moments from the single, unchanging reality of consciousness that is Siva. This divine play, this lila, takes place in the greater context of the eternal constant, the nitya.
Think about all the changing images that impress themselves on your awareness in a single day, in a single hour, in a single minute. Succession cannot be separated from perception, and succession depends on the sense of before and after (purvapara). Therefore, according to Trika doctrine, time is not a self-existent reality but a principle of relation that colors our perceptions and thoughts in terms of past, present, and future. Time (kala) is one with sequence (krama); it is nothing but a succession in mental activity—what Patanjali calls cittavritti—based necessarily on difference. Do you remember that the English word time derives from a root meaning “to part,” “to divide”? Trika Saivism teaches that the sense of passing time is based on the movement of awareness from one perception or one conception to the next, a movement possible only because we sense division and difference. In the ultimate subjectivity of the Self, the atman, there is no division, and where consciousness is undivided, there can be no time—only eternity.
Time in fact belongs to that in-between, pure-impure order known as the suddhasuddhadhvan, and it works as an invisible link between the empirical finite and the transcendental infinite. We have our existence in time and our being in eternity. Consciousness, which ever is, descends and ascends. Siva, expressing himself through the manifest universe, is consciousness descending to the level of our experience. The same Siva, withdrawing the universe back into himself, is consciousness ascending to the experience of its original transcendence.
With some understanding of what time is all about, can we put this knowledge to practical use? Every religion offers some sort of path to salvation, liberation, enlightenment, or Self-knowledge. The one proposed by Christianity centers on the significance of Easter, the central moment in history. In biblical theology there are two Greek words for time—chronos and kairos. The term chronos, which gives us our English words chronic, chronicle, and chronology, denotes the extensiveness and movement of time, the conditioning under which our mortal lives unfold. The other term, kairos, suggests “quality.” Remember that Plotinus, attempting to describe the Divine, said that One denotes a quality and not a number. In Christian theology kairos denotes a decisive moment laden with crisis or opportunity. Easter is just such a moment of kairos, a moment marked by the crisis of the crucifixion and the opportunity of resurrection and eternal life for the faithful.
Christians regard this as a gift of divine grace. Grace also figures in the Sivaratri narrative, and throughout Saiva religion. To understand this concept of grace, we first note that Lord Siva has five functions. There is nigraha—he conceals himself. How does he do this? By projecting the universe, sustaining it, and withdrawing it—through the functions of srishti, sthiti, and samhara. And then again, he reveals himself. That fifth function of self-revelation is called anugraha, and that is what we know as divine grace. Although the idea of grace immediately suggests its inescapable companion, self-effort, Sri Ramakrishna easily resolved that thorny question by explaining that the breeze of God’s grace is continually blowing and we need only set the sail of the mind to catch it. The opportunity is always there.
The Samkhya philosophy and Patanjali’s closely related Yoga darsana offer a rational, scientific method for enlightenment based on the observation and management of our own consciousness. As Patanjali points out, when the mind is perfectly concentrated and fixed unwaveringly on a single object, we lose awareness of time. This is true even in the waking state when something grabs hold of our attention and involves us totally. When we are able to attain that same state of involvement during meditation, we may be surprised to see that a long while has passed, according to the clock, without our being aware of any passage of time at all. The explanation is simple: time and change are inseparable, but for the one-pointed mind there is no change, and therefore no perception of time. In the highest samadhi, called asamprajnata, when thought ceases entirely and every movement in consciousness, every cittavritti, is stilled, there remains only awareness of the ever-present reality between the thoughts—purusha or consciousness in its purest state—the experience of eternity. Interestingly the Vedanta calls this same, highest state nirvikalpa samadhi, which means “absorption free of differentiated perception.”
As Trika Saivism teaches, the level of our ordinary awareness is called apara (“not-supreme”), and the level of divine awareness is called para (“supreme”). Between them there is the intermediate level called parapara. This is maya. When our awareness rises to the parapara level, as we begin to penetrate the veils of maya, we become receptive to instantaneous, intuitive flashes without sequence. An entire idea flashes in the mind in all its phases at once, in its undivided wholeness without any reference to time. This state, known as visvasphara is exactly what the Sanskrit calls it, a “universal expansion” of consciousness. It is an instant of opportunity and insight that flashes like lightning and takes us momentarily beyond our smallness and limitation and gives an intimation of the spiritual goal, of our own infinitude and eternality. The realized soul, at last attaining the goal, declares, “Sivo ’ham—I am Siva.”
The Sanskrit word for eternity is nityatva, which literally means the state of abiding in one’s own inherent being. Echoing this same view, Emmanuel Kant wrote that time is a form of intuition through which sensory impressions are received. Time is subjective perception and has no objective reality. Reality, which Kant called “the thing-in-itself,” is not in time but can only be thought of in time. The thing-in-itself remains unknowable to ordinary, temporal awareness. Kant’s philosophical views anticipate the ideas that Einstein expressed in scientific terms. For Einstein time and space are variants coordinated from the observer’s own standpoint, in relation to which all else is moving. This is highly reminiscent of Vedantic teaching, which calls the true Self the eternal witness (sakshin) and the world jagat,meaning “that which moves.” Likewise, the Trikasastra offers a view of the universe not unlike that of present day science. That should not be surprising, given that both are disciplines based on observation, reasoning, and experimentation.
In a book entitled Cosmology and Creation, Paul Brockelman, a professor of religious studies and philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, wrote that to be consistent with contemporary science we can no longer put God outside of creation or even beneath it as a mere foundation. We need to “find the Divine within nature yet to avoid reducing it to a finite thing or even [to] the whole of finitude.” He writes that “God must be immanent in nature, not as a finite part of it, but … as the infinite and mysterious power-to-be that shines through it.” Brockelman calls God “the ‘beyond’ of existence, the mysterious indefinability of reality … available in nature itself … directly available in the experience of wonder.” There is nothing in Brockelman’s book to indicate that the professor is familiar with the writings of the Saiva mystics, but he speaks the same language as they do. He speaks of wonder, and we cannot but recall that sense of joyful wonder— what Saiva teaching calls camatkara. That wonder is the wonder of infinity and eternity, a glimpse in the here and now of the indescribable bliss of the Self. Realizing our true identity as Siva, as Brahman, as atman, is life’s highest purpose and the goal of all spiritual practice—a practice possible only in this realm of time. So, even though we cannot hold on to time, we can certainly seize the moment.