Dharma Series 8: Hindu concept of time and epochs

Most of us have heard about the four yugas or the four eras in Hinduism. These four yugas are Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapar Yuga and the Kal Yuga. In this post, I'll touch upon the surface of the concept of yugas, their significance and importance in dharma.

According to Hinduism, a cycle of time, called Mahayuga is 43,20,000 human years long, and is divided into 4 sub-yugas, whose lengths are in the ratio of 4:3:2:1 for satya, dwapar, treta and kali yuga respectively. The yugas are differentiated on the basis of various aspects including their duration, the human lifespan, level of wisdom, spiritual strength, and more. We will come to each of these in the post.

However, the most important aspect that defines the yugas is the state of Dharma. Dharma is actions (karma) in life that sustain life and the world in which we’re unfolding. In Bhagvatam, Dharma is described as a bull who stands on four legs. These four legs are:

1) Tapas or austerity: The intent of austerity is non-attachment, and non-duality. It is characterised by people being selfless, understanding, helpful, tolerant, & living life with utmost simplicity, while focusing on meditating on the supreme conscious. The virtues of tapas are: temperance and moderation.

2) Saucha or purity: Saucha points to deep inner purity. This allows consciousness and the divine to be clearly reflected and expressed. It is characterised by wholesome and strong societal and family values. The virtues of saucha are: prudence, discretion and foresight.

3) Daya or compassion: Defined as the desire to mitigate the sorrow and difficulties of others and to treat all living beings as one’s own self. It is charcterised by peaceful society and kindness towards all forms of life. Innocent animals are properly protected like family members. The virtues of daya are: fortitude, bravery and courage.

4) Satya or truth: is the truth of the absolute, of reality itself. It is characterised by high minded spiritual and philosophical exchanges between citizens. There is no fear of being cheated and honest work/wage trade-off. The virtues of sayta are: justice, morality and chivalry.

It is said that as the world cycles from satya to treta, dwapar and eventually kali yuga, the dharma loses each one of its four legs. The satya yuga, therefore lasts a ratio of 4, with all 4 legs intact, dwapar yuga in the ratio of 3, with 3 legs intact, treta yuga in the ratio of 2, with 2 legs intact and finally kali yuga, when dharma only stands on one leg.

Let's look at the characteristics of each yuga now:

1) Satya Yuga: Satya Yuga marks the beginning of the cycle of yugas. This yuga is the purest of all. It lasts for 17,28,000 years and the average lifespan of humans is 1,00,000 years. Known as the age of spirit, the humans in this yuga are perceptually aware of all their five sheaths of their body(annamaya kosha - the layer sustained by food, pranamaya kosha - the later sustained by breath, manomaya kosha - the layer of thoughts and emotions, vijnanmaya kosha - the layer of higher intellect, and anandmaya kosha - the layer of absolute bliss) and are connected with the divine. The dharma stands on all its four legs, dominated in tapas(austerity). The satya yuga witnessed the incarnations of Lord Vishnu in the Matsya, Kurma, Varaha and Narsimha avatars, and the Vedas were not subdivided into categories.

2) Treta Yuga: Treta literally means the third in the cycle of yugas. However, treta comes before dwapar, since the cycle was modified by Maharishi Gautam, to alleviate his wife Ahalya of the curse inflicted upon her by him in the satya yuga, which could only be reversed by the Rama avatar of Vishnu, that was destined to take place in the treta yuga. It lasts for 12,96,000 years and the average lifespan of humans is 10,000 years. Treta yuga is known as the age of thought, and the humans gradually lose the consciousness of the vijnanmaya kosha and the anandmaya kosha in this yuga, and dharma now stands on 3 legs, devoid of tapas(austerity) of satya yuga, and dominated by saucha(cleanliness). The treta yuga witnesses the incarnations of Lord Vishnu in Parshurama and Rama avatars, and the vedas were transmitted orally from guru to the disciple. To maintain dharma, treta yuga also saw emergence of varnas(occupation based classes) and ashramas(activities based on stage of life).

3) Dwapar Yuga: Dwapar yuga lasts for 8,64,000 years and the average lifespan of humans is 1,000 years. It is known as the age of energy, and the humans are further focusing only on annamaya kosha and pranamaya kosha in this yuga. Dharma stands on 2 legs, devoid of tapas(austerity) and saucha(cleanliness). This yuga witnesses the incarnations of Lord Vishnu in Krishna and Buddha avatars. As the human intellect further dwindled, to easily disseminate the real truth, the Vedas were divided into 4 categories. In dwapar yuga, languages and religions separate and cause conflict.

4) Kali Yuga: Kali yuga lasts for 4,32,000 years and the average lifespan of humans is 100 years. Known as the age of materialism, the dharma stands only on the leg of satya(truth). This yuga witnesses the incarnations of Lord Vishnu in Kalki avatar. The vedic teachings start becoming perverted and are eventually lost. There is a continued decrease in virtue until at the end it practically disappears. Human consciousness is restricted heavily to annamaya kosha and to some extent, pranamaya kosha. The minds of people are wholly occupied in acquiring wealth; and wealth will be spent solely on selfish gratifications.

The concept of yugas has been defined and designed mathematically and there is a detailed description of human and societal characterists(including occupation, connection with the divine, societal structure and more). This post is just a nudge towards heaps of wisom which we could derive from studying yugas in detail. This is just the tip of the iceberg to introduce you to the concept of yugas. More on this topic soon. Please feel free to share your learnings and comments too.