THE HINDU THEORY OF WORLD CYCLES
In the Light of Modern Science

Traditional Hindu scriptures view history as cyclical in character, with vast repeating series of ages. Each age has its own particular qualities. Interestingly, this system seems to be taken literally by modern Yoga masters such as Swami Muktananda, Baba Hari Dass, Swami Vishnu Tirtha, and so on. As a Western devotee, I found myself wondering exactly what the full system of Hindu cycles is, and how it relates to the findings of modern science. Following is my attempt to explain what I found out.

Traditional Puranic Model

The Hindu Puranas describe a number of cycles within cycles. Discussions of these cycles can become confusing because different cycles are measured in different types of units. For example, the cycles are often described in units of deva years, each of which equals 360 human years.

The following description starts with the smaller cycles and works up to the larger ones. The length of each cycle is given in ordinary human (earth) years, as well other units where appropriate. Large numbers are described using the conventions of American English: thus, a million is a thousand thousand, a billion is a thousand million, a trillion is a thousand billion.

This description is based on numerous sources, which are given in the "References" section at the end of this document.

Maha Yugas

The smallest cycle is called a maha yuga. A maha yuga is 4,320,000 human years. Each maha yuga is subdivided into the following four ages, whose lengths follow a ratio of 4:3:2:1:

Satya Yuga (also called Krita Yuga)
This first age is 1,728,000 human years. Also known as the Golden Age or age of Truth. The qualities of this age are: virtue reigns supreme; human stature is 21 cubits; lifespan is a lakh of years, and death occurs only when willed.
Treta Yuga
This second age is 1,296,000 human years. Also known as the Silver Age. The qualities of this age are: the climate is three quarters virtue and one quarter sin; human stature is 14 cubits; lifespan is 10,000 years.
Dvapara Yuga
This third age is 864,000 human years. Also known as the Bronze Age. The qualities of this age are: the climate is one half virtue and one half sin; lifespan is 1,000 years.
Kali Yuga
The fourth and last age is 432,000 human years. Also known as the Iron Age. This is the age in which we are presently living. The qualities of this age are: the climate is one quarter virtue and three quarters sin; human stature is 3.5 cubits; lifespan is 100 or 120 years.

Toward the end of a Kali Yuga, various calamities cause a good deal of destruction. Baba Hari Dass states that creation disappears at the end of a Maha Yuga and remains in seed form inside Brahma. However, other sources do not suggest anything so drastic; it is possible that Hari Dass was really thinking of the end of Brahma's daytime or Brahma's life when he wrote this description.

Brahma Days (Kalpas)

A kalpa is a single daytime period in the life of Brahma, the creator god. Two kalpas are a day and a night of Brahma.

Each kalpa is composed of 1,000 maha yugas. A kalpa is thus equal to 4.32 billion human years.

At the end of Brahma's daytime period, the Three Worlds (Bhuloka, Bhuvarloka, Swarloka) and the seven underworlds (of the nagas) are temporarily dissolved (pralaya); that is, the same folks can be reincarnated when the next day of Brahma begins.

The Vishnu Purana states that at the end of the daytime period of Brahma, a dreadful drought occurs that lasts 100 years, and all the waters are dried up. The sun changes into seven suns, and the three worlds (Bhurloka or Earth, Bhuvarloka or the lowest heaven, and Svarloka or the next higher heaven) and the underworlds are burned bare of life. The inhabitants of Bhuvarloka and Svarkloka flee to the next higher heaven, Maharloka, to escape the heat; and then to the next higher heaven, Janaloka.

Then mighty clouds form and the three worlds are completely flooded with water. The lord Vishnu reposes on the waters in meditative rest for another whole kalpa (4.32 billion years) before renewing the creation.

The destruction that takes place at the end of a daytime of Brahma is referred to as naimittika, which is incidental or occasional. The characteristic of this destruction is that the three worlds continue to exist but are made uninhabitable. The souls of individuals also continue to exist to be reincarnated in the next daytime of Brahma.

Brahma Years

A year of Brahma is composed of 360 day/night cycles of Brahma, or 720 kalpas, or 8.64 billion human years.

Brahma Life

The lifespan of Brahma is 100 Brahma years, or 72,000 kalpas, or 311.04 trillion human years.

At the end of the life of Brahma, all worlds are completely dissolved (mahapralaya). No one is reincarnated from these worlds ever again.

Manvantaras

Another cycle that overlaps the others is that of manvantaras. Each kalpa is reigned over by a succession of 14 Manus, and the reign of each Manu is called a manvantara. A single manvantara is approximately 71 maha yugas.

Coomaraswamy states: "Each Manvantara is followed by a Deluge, which destroys the existings continents and swallows up all living beings, except the few who are preserved for the repeopling of the earth."

Our Position in History

We are located in the fifty-first Brahma year of the life of our Brahma.

Within that Brahma year, we are in the first Brahma day, called the Varaha kalpa.

Within that Brahma day, we are in the seventh manvantara, and in the 28th maha yuga of that manvantara. This would place us at about the 454th maha yuga of the 1,000 maha yugas that comprise this day of Brahma.

Within this maha yuga, we are in Kali Yuga. The 5100th year of Kali Yuga will correspond to the year 2,000 A.D. That means that we are fairly early in Kali Yuga and this age will continue more than 426,000 more years.

Variant Interpretations of Hindu Chronology

The "Traditional Puranic Model" described above is agreed upon by most authors on Hinduism and Yoga. Six different authors, listed at the end of this paper, describe this model identically.

However, several other authors, some of them well-known Hindu teachers, have published descriptions of the cycle of ages that differ from the traditional Puranic model. These variant theories are described below.

Sri Yukteswar

In the introduction to his book The Holy Science, Sri Yukteswar describes an interesting variant of the Hindu theory of ages. According to him,

...the sun, with its planets and their moons, takes some star for its dual and revolves around it in about 24,000 years of our earth-a celestial phenomenon which causes the backward movement of the equinoctial points around the zodiac. The sun also has another motion by which it revolves round a grand center called Vishnunabhi, which is the seat of the creative power, Brahma, the universal magnetism. Brahma regulates dharma, the mental virtue of the internal world.

Yukteswar goes on to explain that the sun's 24,000 year revolution around its companion star takes the sun progressively closer, and then progressively further away from the mystic center Vishnunabhi. In his system, dharma increases as we approach Vishnunabhi and decreases as we draw away from it. The cycle of yugas takes place twice in each 24,000 year revolution. As the sun recedes from Vishnunabhi, the ages pass in the usual order: Satya, Treta, Dvapara, Kali. As the sun approaches Vishnunabhi, the ages pass in the opposite order: Kali, Dvapara, Treta, Satya.

The length of the yugas is: Satya Yuga, 4800 years; Treta Yuga, 3600 years; Dwapara Yuga, 2400 years; and Kali Yuga, 1200 years. The yugas during the approach to Vishnunabhi he calls 'ascending' yugas; those during the retreat from Vishnunabhi he calls 'descending' yugas. The most recent ascending Kali Yuga began in 499 A.D. Since 1599 A.D. we have been in the ascending Dwapara Yuga, with consequent advances in human culture and knowledge.

Yukteswar goes on to say that the Hindu almanacs, which correspond to the traditional Puranic model described previously, are in error. The error crept in during the dark years of Kali Yuga when scholars misinterpreted the scriptures. Regarding the conventional view that we are currently in Kali Yuga, Yukteswar says flatly that it is not true.

Yukteswar's model thus differs from the traditional in the following respects:

  • A cycle of four yugas takes 24,000 years instead of 4,320,000.
  • The yugas alternate between ascending and descending trends instead of always proceeding in the same order. This alternation becomes necessary once you posit that the ages result from our changing distance from Vishnunabhi, rather than a deliberate divine intervention at the end of Kali Yuga.
  • The greater cycles like kalpas, manvantars, and lifespan of Brahma go unmentioned.

Paramahansa Yogananda

Paramahansa Yogananda was a disciple of Sri Yukteswar and one of the best-known Hindu teachers ever to visit the West. He wrote the perrenial bestseller Autobiography of a Yogi.

In the latter book, Yogananda describes and endorses Yukteswar's theory of world cycles. However, in a footnote, Yogananda adds the following:

The Hindu scriptures place the present world-age as occurring within the Kali Yuga of a much longer universal cycle than the simple 24,000 year ecquinoctial cycle with which Sri Yukteswar was concerned. The universal cycle of the scriptures of 4,300,560,000 years in extent, and measures out a Day of Creation. This vast figure is based on the relationship between the length of the solar year and a multiple of pi (3.1416, the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle).

The life span for a whole universe, according to the ancient seers, is 314,159,000,000,000 solar years, or "One Age of Brahma."

The Hindu scriptures declare that an earth such as ours is dissolved for one of two reasons: the inhabitants as a whole become either completely good or completely evil. The world mind thus generates a power that releases the captive atoms held together as an earth.

This statement seems at first to reconcile Yukteswar's theory with the traditional view, but in fact actually contradicts both.

Regarding Yukteswar's theory, in his own writing he clearly states that the traditional Hindu almanacs are in error and suggests how the error came about. He states that the length of the yugas, given in ordindary years in the scriptures, were misinterpreted by later scholars as being counted in units of "deva years" which are much longer. This method led the scholars to believe that the yugas are much longer than they really are. Yukteswar's theory is thus clearly intended to replace, not to supplement, the traditional interpretation.

Regarding the "much longer universal cycle" that Yogananda describes, he states that a Day of Creation is 4,300,560,000 years. This is close but not identical to the traditional number, which is 4,320,000,000 years. Similarly, Yogananda gives 314,159,000,000,000 years the the life of Brahma, whereas traditionally the number is slightly different: 311,040,000,000,000 years. It seems likely that Yogananda arrived at these different figures because he wanted to derive them from some multiple of the ratio pi. The exact manner in which pi enters into the calculation is, unfortunately, not explained in his footnote.

David Frawley

David Frawley is a Westerner who has become a scholar of Vedic scriptures, Jyotish (Indian astrology), and Ayurveda (Indian medicine). He has written a number of books on various aspects of Vedic culture and wisdom.

Like Yogananda, Frawley adopts Yukteswar's 24,000 year maha yuga and views it as a smaller cycle within the larger maha yugas described traditionally. Frawley likewise introduces some twists in the way he interprets both the smaller and the larger cycle.

With regard to the 24,000 year cycle, Frawley begins like Yukteswar by ascribing the cycle to the sun's revolution around a companion star. Frawley says that this revolution varies the amount of cosmic light we receive from the galactic center. Thus, he seems to have identified Yukteswar's Vishnunabhi with the center of the galaxy, which Yukteswar never explicitly does. Still, it is a plausible interpretation.

Unfortunately, a 24,000 year orbit would make only a negligible difference in our sun's distance from the galactic center, which is at a vast remove from us. Presumably because of this, Frawley abandons Yukteswar's notion that it is our varying distance from Vishnunabhi that causes the cycles of yugas. Instead, he posits that our companion star is a dark star, and when it passes between us and Vishnunabhi, tends to eclipse some of the cosmic light from that source, thus causing the decline into the less inspired ages like Kali Yuga.

In describing the greater cycle, Frawley states

The greater cycle consists of 8,640,000 years, and what it corresponds to astronomically is not now known. In this cycle we are in a dark or Iron age, whose duration is 432,000 years. Exactly when it began or when it will end are not clearly known either. (Some begin it at 3102 B.C. but this is just to confuse it with the beginning of the Bronze age or the dark half of the lesser cycle.)

In this passage, Frawley gives the traditional length for Kali yuga while giving double the traditional length for the cycle as a whole. Why? Presumably he considers that the greater cycle follows the same pattern as the lesser, with both ascending and descending yugas. Thus a full cycle would consist of Satya-Treta-Dvapara-Kali-Kali-Dvapara-Treta-Satya. Presumably also the whole cycle follows as a result of our overall revolution around some object more distant than the "companion star" or "dark star."

Alain Danielou

Alain Danielou has written a number of books on the spiritual traditions of India. In the book While the Gods Play, he quotes the Linga Purana and derives numbers from it much different than those in the traditional interpretation described previously. In this version, the life span of the gods is 4,320,000 human years. This period is divided into 71.42 manvantaras. Each manvantara is divided into the four yugas: Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali. As a result, the length of these yugas is as follows:

  • Satya (or Krita) Yuga: 24,195 human years.
  • Treta Yuga: 18,146 human years.
  • Dvapara Yuga: 12,097 human years.
  • Kali Yuga: 6,048,72 human years.

By Danielou's reckoning, Kali Yuga began in 3012 B.C. and will end in 2442 A.D. By that point, the last traces of the present human race will have disappeared. We are supposed to be the seventh manifestation of the human race; the previous ones appeared in 419,964 B.C.; 359,477 B.C.; 298,990 B.C.; 238,503 B.C.; 178,016 B.C.; and 118,529 B.C. Our race appeared in 58,042 B.C., which according to Danielou corresponds to the advent of Cro-Magnon man. Danielou also suggests that Neanderthal man might be the race that precedes ours.

Danielou's version thus differs from the usual theory in the following ways:

  • He takes 4,320,000 as the lifespan of the gods, rather than the length of a maha yuga.
  • He divides the 4,320,000 period into 71.42 manvantaras, rather than dividing a kalpa into 14 manvantaras. His manvantaras are thus much shorter than in the usual version.
  • He states that each manvantara contains a single mahayuga, instead of the usual 71 maha yugas. His maha yugas are thus much shorter than in the usual version.

Danielou makes a couple of other comments worth mentioning. On the subject of why the scriptures portray a year as 360 days in length, he states

The number of days in a year is not constant. The rhythm of the earth's rotation varies over very long periods. A figure of 360 is considered to be the average.

In referring to the cyclical nature of the ages, Danielou also makes the following very interesting statement:

The circle is an illusion, for the cosmic mechanism is in reality always formed of spirals. Nothing ever returns to its point of departure. However, the circle does give us a simplified image.

Unfortunately, he does not expand on this concept any further.

Rishi Singh Gerwal

Rishi Singh Gerwal was the author and apparently also the publisher of a small pamphlet on ancient prophecies, published in Santa Barbara in the 1940s. The pamphlet contains translations of various prophetic portions of the Mahabharata.

In the Introduction, Gerwal gives the following numbers:

1 kalpa = 22 septillion, 394 sextillion, 880 quadtillion human years.

1 kalpa = 2 manvantaras (traditionally this would be 14 manvantaras)

1 manvantara = 71 maha yugas (this is the same as the traditional reckoning)

Gerwal goes on to give the traditional lengths for the Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali Yugas. He then states that the present Kali yuga has 210,000 years to go. He also states that 22,394,880,000,000,000,000,000,000 years have already passed since the start of the kalpa. Since this number is the same one he gave as the length of a kalpa, we are presumably at the very end of this present kalpa.

Oddly enough, if you multiply maha yugas of 4,320,000 years times 71 to make a manvantara and then times 2 to make a kalpa, the result is only 613,440,000 years rather than the 22 septillion Gerwal states as his total.

The 22 septillion number is far greater than the traditional length of a kalpa, and the statement that 2 manvantaras make a kalpa is far fewer than the traditional number of 14.

Yugas and Science

If we restrict our attention to the traditional interpretation, we find that it makes a number of significant predictions that can be compared with the findings of modern science.

Great Culture Preceded Us

Beginning about 3,894,000 years ago, there is supposed to have been a great civilisation in which people were happier, taller, and much longer lived than they are today.

By contrast, scientists currently believe that homo sapiens evolved from more primitive forbears about 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. Humanity is supposed to have domesticated plants about 12,000 years ago, and animals shortly thereafter. Prior to that point, humans are thought to have been hunter-gatherers and possibly scavengers.

The scientific view is based on fossil evidence. The mystery is how an advanced civilization posited by the Hindu theory could have vanished without leaving any trace for us to find.

Cyclic Catastrophes

A number of periodic catastrophes are described in the Hindu scriptures:

  • At the end of each Kali Yuga, some type of destruction takes place. The most recent instance would be a bit under 4 million years ago. Other instances should be found every 4,320,000 years before that.
  • At the end of each manvantara, a great flood wipes out most life on earth. The most recent occurrence would be 120,534,000 years ago. Other instances would occur at intervals of 306,720,000 years.
  • At the end of the kalpa, all life on earth is destroyed. The most recent instance would be 2,267,574,000 years ago.
  • At the end of a life of Brahma, the entire universe and all its heavens and hells are destroyed. The current universe would have come into existence more than 150 billion years ago.

Interestingly, current scientific research does support the existence of occasional mass extinctions in earth's history. These include the following major extinctions:

  • At the Ordovician/Silurian transition, about 425 million years ago.
  • Near the Devonian/Carboniferous transition, about 345 million years ago.
  • At the Permian/Triassic transition, about 230 million years ago.
  • At the Triassic/Jurassic transition, about 180 million years ago.
  • At the Cretaceous/Tertiary transition, about 63 million years ago.

Additionally, some scientists have identified what they believe is a cycle of periodic mass extinctions occurring every 26 million years.

Unfortunately, none of these specified dates corresponds to the catastrophes called for by the Hindu theory.

Current scientific estimates of the age of the universe range from 7 billion to 20 billion years. By contrast, the Hindu theory calls for a universe more than 150 billion years old.

On the other hand, the dates ascribed by scientists to the various geologic periods have been revised a number of times on the basis of new evidence, and could possibly be revised again in the future. Further, cosmology could reasonably be described as an infant science, and the age it ascribes to the universe as a whole might also change on the basis of new theories and evidence.

Downward Trend

By far the greater divergence from modern science is in the overall pattern of the Hindu theory. The Hindu and scientific patterns differ in the following ways:

  • The main pattern in the Hindu theory is one of cycles.
  • In the Hindu theory, life follows a downward trend most of the time, from the finest age to the worst. At the end of the worst age, Kali Yuga, divine intervention rapidly destroys the wicked and restores everything to its pristine state.
  • In the Hindu theory, humanity is always present. The concept of evolution is confined to spiritual evolution; that is, each soul takes life in a series of lower to higher animal forms before finally incarnating as a human being.

By contrast, the fossil record of life on earth indicates that life began with very simple forms and later developed more complex organisms. The advent of humanity appears to be an extremely recent development when compared to the history of life on earth. Humanity itself does not appear to have existed long enough to have participated in the vast cycles of ages posited by Hindu theory.

Conclusion

There is no scientific support for the Hindu theory of world cycles. Further, current scientific theory contradicts Hindu theory in many respects. It is best to begin by acknowledging this truth, as such an acknowledgement can form the basis for interesting discussions of the different ways of knowing that underly the more specific differences. Such, however, must be the substance of another paper.


References

Traditional Puranic Chronology

(Anonymous), Introduction to Kashmir Shaivism. S.Y.D.A. Foundation, Oakland, California, 1977. See pp. 69-70.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy & Sister Nivedita, Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1967. See pp. 392-395.

Baba Hari Dass, Silence Speaks. Sri Rama Foundation, Santa Cruz, California, 1977. See pp. 79-80.

Cornelia Dimmitt & J.A.B. van Buitenen, Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas. Rupa & Co., Calcutta etc., 1983. See pp. 19-24, 36-43.

Swami Vishnu Tirtha Maharaj, Devatma Shakti (Kundalini): Divine Power. Pub. Swami Shivom Tirth, 1962. See pp. 29-30.

W. J. Wilkins, Hindu Mythology. Rupa & Co., Calcutta etc., 1983. See pp. 353-360.

Variant Interpretations of Hindu Chronology

Alain Danielou, While the Gods Play: Shaiva Oracles and Predictions on the Cycles of History and the Destiny of Mankind. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont, 1987. See pp. 194-199.

David Frawley, Vedic Astrology Correspondence Course, Part I, Section 1. Vedic Research Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1986. See pp. 16-18.

Rishi Singh Grewal, World Prophecies: Dictators and Taxation Foretold in Ancient Hindu Philosophy, pub. Rishi Singh Grewal, Santa Barbara, California, 1941. Esp. pp. 1-5.

Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi. Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, 1979. See pp. 193-194.

Jnanavatar Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri, The Holy Science: Kaivalya Darsanam. Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, 1984. See pp. 7-20.

Summaries of Scientific Theory

Funk & Wagnall's New Encycopedia, 1986 revision. Various articles.

Rick Gore, "Extinctions," National Geographic, June 1989.



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Copyright 1996, 1997 by Joseph Morales