Perception of time from the harbor of timelessness

From the first inhabitants of Australia, the ancestors of today’s aboriginal people, who embraced a timeless view of nature, in which the present and past are intimately connected, to the modern research into the quantum nature of time, Time remains as an enigma to the thinking humankind. The ancient Greeks debated the origin of time fiercely. Aristotle, taking the no-beginning side, invoked the principle that out of nothing, nothing comes. If the universe could never have gone from nothingness to somethingness, it must always have existed. We are able to see the same idea in the ancient Hindu mystical scriptures called the Upanishads, we read:

“O amiable one, this universe, before its creation, was but existence one without a second” (Chandogya Upanishad VI.ii.1)

“That Brahman (Absolute) is without prior or posterior, without interior or exterior” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad II.V.19)

The general theory of relativity led modern cosmologists to the same conclusion, according to which space and time are soft, malleable entities. Macrocosmically speaking, space is naturally dynamic, expanding or contracting over time. It was confirmed in the 1920s by astronomers that universe is currently expanding, i.e., distant galaxies move apart from one another. Consequently, physicists like Stephen Hawking proved in the 1960s, that time cannot extend back indefinitely. So, the whole drama must be traced back to a single infinitesimal point, known as a singularity. The galactic extravagance is, as it were, squeezed down to zero size. Quantities such as density, temperature and space-time curvature become infinite. Thus, singularity becomes the ultimate cataclysm, beyond which our cosmic ancestry cannot extend.

Sages like Sri Narayana Guru calls the Absolute as Karu, which is synonymous with Spinoza’s substance. In Guru’s Guhashtaka, he defines Karu as the pure duration that is generating the flux of time. He also talks about the subjective perception of time in his century of verses (Atmopadesha Shatakam, verse 15), we read:

“Ten thousand years do a moment make for the favoured ones Suckled in the milk of the Absolute beyond; but when knowledge Is caught in the power of the nature that is relative here, Half a second, ten thousand years long would seem.”

A fundamental epistemological distinction is made here by way of comparing the two kinds of knowledge that the human mind is capable of having or of aspiring after. The knowledge of the Absolute which is beyond, unconditioned by the multiplicity of attractions here in relativistic nature with which we are related every day, refers to the supreme aspect of the Absolute. The ordinary everyday world of life here in the biological sense involves values that are multiple and relativistic.

Vedantic literature makes use of two terms applied to Nature. One of these is called ‘para’ which has the quality of otherness. The second is called ‘apara’ which has the quality of non-otherness. The two terms translated as ‘the Absolute beyond’ and ‘the relative here’ is done so to indicate the reciprocity of the distinction implied.

‘Suckled in the milk of the Absolute’: The pure Absolute is referred to here, though figuratively, in anthropomorphic terms. The image of a mother suckling her child is introduced. One has to remember here that the pure Absolute should not even be named, as the Tao Teh Khing would put it. In the same Tao Teh Khing the wise man is likened to the child sucking the Mother, to Nature or the Absolute — Section 20.

‘Nature that is relative here, etc.’: A perfectly symmetrical picture is built round the notion of Time, half a second in duration, which is the central and neutral reality that is here postulated for the comparison of two aspects of the same Absolute, as seen in Nature, whether taken to be within or without. The inner Nature is related to pure Time with no events; while the outer nature is so full of events that duration feels heavy and unpleasant.

Guru further instructs the wisdom seeker in verse 9, we read:

“He who dwells in contemplation beneath a tree. Whereon climbing, a creeper bears aloft on either side. The blossoms of the psychic states; mark, such a man, by inferno unapproached ever remains.”

Joy and suffering, light and darkness, positive and negative, prospective and retrospective orientations of the spirit, are to be understood as poles of the vertical axis of the personality of man as in a plant, where the roots seek darkness geotropically and the twigs seek light heliotropically, so too the consciousness of man is caught between ambivalent poles.

The detached man who sits under the tree takes up a neutral position between the positive and negative. He avoids the lure of the sense-luxuries of objects of little interest and recedes to wholehearted or lastingly worthwhile interests by placing himself nearer to the negative pole. This would mean being nearer to the trunk of the tree which would represent the master-tendencies in life treated as if tied in a bundle together.

In thus placing himself correctly in detached neutrality, and if biased at all, more negatively than positively, the Self escapes all possibility of being caught in the alternating phases of the plus or minus of the situation. Self-realization is thus freedom from suffering when one’s consciousness is balanced: first vertically between dreams and facts, and secondly between positive and negative vertical states, when established in the neutral fourth state.

One has to do violence to one’s own nature in the practice of dialectical reasoning. That is why it has been called in Sanskrit ‘tapas’ or the burning up of oneself. A detachment from the empirical world and a state of mind resembling that of pure mathematics is implicit in all contemplation. Interests lead to chains of activities which are initiated through any object of interest occupying the centre of consciousness at a given time. These would compromise the case for pure contemplative attention to the Self as the neutral Absolute. Just as pure mathematical thought is impossible when we are swayed by passions belonging to the outer world; so pure contemplation is impossible to one attached to the empirical world of touch or measurement.

The state of pure contemplation is described in verse 4, we read:

“Knowledge, its meaning known, and the personal knowledge. Subjective, together make but one primal glory; Within the unrarified radiance of this great knowledge, one should merge and become that alone.”

Become That Alone: The identity of subject and object in contemplative life has been recognized both in the East and the West. The reference of Plotinus to the ‘flight of the alone to the Alone’ is a direct paraphrase of the state of kaivalya (aloneness) which is the goal of contemplative life, even according to dualistic schools such as that of Patanjali. There is a subtle tri-basic factor called triputi which is responsible for our wrong appraisal of reality. The lazy mind left to itself without the attitude of contemplation has a tendency to view reality sectionally or horizontally, as it were, from an angle which takes for granted the knower, the knowledge as a concept, and the objective side of knowledge, as three distinct separate entities. One has to counteract this tri-basic prejudice to which the human mind is naturally disposed. When the tri-partite (knowledge, knower and known) split has been transcended by another way of approach to reality which is more in keeping with contemplation, an inclusive and universal value of great interest and intellectual content takes its place in the centre of consciousness.

The state of such a contemplative is been indicated in the Bhagavad Gita, we read:

karmaṇyakarma yaḥ paśhyed akarmaṇi cha karma yaḥ
sa buddhimān manuṣhyeṣhu sa yuktaḥ kṛitsna-karma-kṛit

“Those who see action in inaction and inaction in action are truly wise amongst humans. Although performing all kinds of actions, they are yogis and masters of all their actions.”

The Absolute cannot be said to be either active or inactive, since it is the negative aspect of the Absolute i.e., Nature which acts. Strictly speaking there is no disparity at all. The contemplative vision takes place when we can recognize the inactivity of the Absolute reality in the apparent activity and the flow of time in the world. Such a person, the Gita calls is a true sage, who perceives time from the harbor of timelessness.

अहं ब्रह्म निर्भयं