The Four Ages in Indian Tradition
The mythical and metaphysical character of universal time in Western tradition has clear parallels in Oriental tradition, particularly that of ancient India, with the advantage that many numerical data pertaining to it are preserved. The four ages of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron appear here as the Krita-Yuga, the Treta-Yuga, the Dvapara-Yuga, and the Kali-Yuga. The Kali Yuga or ‘dark age’ is so-called after Kali, the demon of destruction, and not the goddess Kali. According to Hindu teachings, Kali cannot be defeated except by Krishna. These four are said to make up the total cycle of the present human race from its creation to the end of its world, the whole being called a Manvantara or ‘era of Manu’. Manu is the name of the half-mythical lawgiver at the inauguration of the era. The four Yugas are said to have lengths of 1,728,000, 1,296,000, 864,000, and 432,000 years respectively, their lengths thus declining in the ratios 4:3:2:1. The construction of these numbers shows them to be symbolic and not historical, although historical figures are also given, as will be shown.
The four Yugas follow a declining order of spiritual quality, as is consistent with the idea of creation, but the metaphysical background to this form of the teaching differs from what has been considered so far. The division of qualities here is based on an analogy with the way space is divided by its three dimensions. All states of being are thought to be intersected by a vertical axis which is divided into upper and lower halves by a horizontal plane intersecting it centrally. The upper and lower halves of this axis and the central plane represent three universal qualities in Hindu teachings called the three gunas, which are called sattva, rajas, and tamas respectively. The first includes everything of an ascending tendency, and is manifest as light, peace and order, while in man it appears as an attraction to truth and virtue. The second of them, rajas, includes everything which involves an active development in the world, and is manifest in an energy which is expansive, constructive and morally neutral. The third, tamas, opposes darkness and confusion to the light and order of sattva, and inertia and destruction to rajas. From these three basic tendencies, which are moral and cosmic equally, result four, not three, world ages.
Again, this follows from the analogy with spatial dimensions. As space can be seen to result from a doubling of each of the three dimensions in opposite directions in a three-dimensional cross, because the distribution of three properties, say A, B, C, through four levels requires the duple combinations AA, AB, BC, CC. Thus the Krita-Yuga is qualified by a duplication of sattva, so that its dominant tendency is wholly ascending. The second in order, the Treta-Yuga, is characterized by a combination of sattva and rajas, so that the upward tendency is mixed with one which is dynamic in a mundane manner. The next such combination is that of rajas and tamas for the third age, or Dvapara-Yuga, in which the dominant tendencies are both neutrally mundane and mingled with the downward or anti-spiritual. The ruling tendency of the fourth age, the Kali-Yuga or ‘dark age’ results from a duplication of the lowest principle, tamas, symmetrically with that of the first.
In this way, the four Yugas possess their leading qualities, the things which appear in the greatest number of human beings who live during them. If it is not a question of an absolute elimination of good with the passage of time, it means at very least a progressively deeper concealment of it and an increasing deprivation of personal influence from it. While the truth has a power which secretly sustains the world through those in whom it still prevails, even during the worst times of disorder, it is always the conditions which are uppermost in the majority of human lives which are the central issue for cosmological teachings.
Characteristics of Successive Ages
The traditional teachings describe the four ages of humanity in considerable detail, starting from the condition of things in the world’s springtime:
In the Krita-Yuga, the Dharma [or spiritual duty, symbolized here by the bull] shall walk on four feet and the people of this age shall reverence it. The feet of the powerful bull are Truth, Mercy, Restraint, and Generosity, O King.
The men of this age are mostly happy, full of compassion and benevolence, with senses tamed and at ease. They are patient, and find their well-being in themselves, regarding all things in an equal manner.
Men are then peaceful, ignorant of hatred, affectionate, of even temper, and glorify God by their asceticism, their inward calm, and in refraining from passions.1
It is made clear that this is the age in which man also possessed the fullness of knowledge, and it invites comparison with the state of Adam and Eve before the Fall, although it could also be the earliest time after it, since the Fall is not part of Hindu Tradition, which never adequately separates it from the creation. In this primal state it would not really be contradictory to say that human beings were spiritual ‘naturally’ since nature and the supernatural were then in the closest union.
The development of the next cycle is marked by the rise of the passional element in man and nature, albeit beginning with its least ignoble aspects:
In the Treta-Yuga, the fourth part of the feet of the Dharma gradually disappears under the [four] feet of injustice, which are deceit, misdeeds, insatiability and plunder.
During this period, the castes, following that of the Brahmins, are devoted to works [sacrifices] and to asceticism. Men are neither very wicked nor very sensual. They are attached to the threefold objective of human action [i.e., pleasure, profit, and virtue], and make a lifelong practice of the Triple Veda.
When human beings concern themselves with their duties, interests and pleasures, then, O Sage, know that it is the Treta-Yuga, when Passion [rajas] reigns.2
The appearance of this cycle, or silver age, is marked by the rise of instability symbolized by the bull standing on only three feet. It is hard to tell whether the beginnings of corruption involved here made the men of this age truly morally worse or better than those who came later because, on the one hand, their deviation offended against a greater manifestation of the truth than was ever generally known at later times, while on the other hand their lives were objectively better than those which came after, if only because of their position in the cycle. This would reduce the moral responsibility to be ascribed to later generations in comparison with the earlier, and it is a compensating factor which applies at all levels of the cycle as well. The continuation of time into the Dvapara-Yuga is represented by the same symbol, but standing on only two feet, to show a further loss of stability:
When greed, insatiability, pride, imposture and envy reign amidst works and sacrifices attached to self-interest, it is then the Dva-para-Yuga, which is dominated by passion and darkness [i.e., rajas and tamas].
The more positive attributes of this cycle are not passed over, but they too contain the seeds of future ills:
During this age men of caste have a love of glory and magnificence. They take pleasure in the study of the Vedas; heads of families are luxurious and joyful. Kshatriyas and Brahmins are always at the head.3
The Beginning of the Dark Age
That these changes in mankind are believed to be historical and not only mythical appears in a text which Thomas Taylor4 quotes concerning the Kali-Yuga, the fourth and last of these cycles, this being the present age of the world. The figures quoted show no lack of precision:
The beginning of the Kaly Youg, or present age, is reckoned from 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 30 seconds of the morning of the 16th of February 3,102 years before the Christian era; but the time for which their astronomical tables are constructed is 2 days, 3 hours, 32 minutes and 30 seconds after that on the 18th of February, about six in the morning. They say there was then a conjunction of the planets, and their tables show that conjunction. Monsieur Bailly observes that by calculation it appears that Jupiter and Mercury were then in the same degree of the ecliptic; that Mars was distant about 8 degrees and Saturn 17; and it results from thence that at the time of the date given by the Brahmans to the commencement of the Kaly Youg they saw those four planets successively disengage themselves from the rays of the sun. . . .5
According to Aryabhata the observations were made at Ujjain in central India, when there was also an eclipse. But if the period of 432,000 assigned to this era was also a historical figure, we should still be very near the beginning of it. However, the days, months, and years in the ancient chronologies often had symbolic meanings rather than our more literal meanings. A method for their reduction to a historical period will be explained in chapter 16.
Once the last age begins, neither of the two superior gunas is able to counteract the dark and destructive tamas. It is called the dark age with good reason if we judge by the next account, which will be longer than the others, not only because it concerns our own age, but because evil is always more multifarious than good; happiness and truth are said to have no history. This time, all but the last foot of the Dharma, or law of spiritual duty, is lost:
During the Kali-Yuga, the fourth and last part of the basis of Dharma diminishes in the face of injustice; in the end it disappears completely.
During this period men are greedy, unruly, pitiless, causelessly hostile, wretched and insatiable; Sudras [the lowest caste] and sinners take the highest places.
When trickery, lying, inertia, slumber, misdeeds, vexation, consternation, trouble, fear, and sorrow reign, it will be called the Kali-Yuga, which is wholly dark.
During this age, men are short-sighted [have limited intelligence], have little resourcefulness, are gluttonous, libidinous, and indigent; women are lustful and wicked.
Fields are ravaged by robbers; the Vedas corrupted by heretics; peoples are oppressed by kings; Brahmins are given over to luxury and indulgence.
Young Brahmins do not keep the least part of their vows, nor practise purity; the heads of households receive alms instead of giving them; ascetics desert their retreats to live in society, and religious who have vowed renunciation are avid for wealth.
Women are diminutive, gluttonous, excessively fertile, without shame, gossiping endlessly, thieves, cheats, and insolent.
Trade will be in the hands of wretched merchants, hired liars; their ill-reputed profession will be accepted beyond the bounds of necessity.
Servants will leave their masters, even the best of them, when they become poor, and masters will dismiss aged servants of their family if they grow infirm, as with cattle which no longer yield milk.
Abandoning father, brothers, friends, and parents, devoted to luxury and illicit affections, wretched and debauched, those who live in the Kali-Yuga shall have criminal relationships between brothers- and sisters-in-law.
Sudras attired as ascetics shall live by this imposture, appropriating gifts; those who know nothing but injustice shall interpret justice and take the highest places.
Souls shall be ever afflicted; tormented by famine and poverty; dread caused by the dryness of the land shall make them sick, in a land without rice, O King.
Without clothing, without food or water, without bed, strangers to pleasure, to baths, to luxury, people will be like Pisacas [out-castes] during the Kali-Yuga.
During the Kali-Yuga they will reject their own friends for a small sum of money; they will sacrifice life itself, and turn parricide.
People will no longer protect their aged parents, or their sons, regardless of their situation, for they shall be given up to luxury and intemperance in their abjectness.
Cuka said: from day to day, Duty, Truth, Purity, Patience, Compassion, Vision, Strength, and Memory will then perish by the power of time, O Prince.
In the Kali-Yuga, wealth will by its advantage replace nobility of origin, virtue and merit in mankind; right and rule will be settled by force.
In marriage they will seek only pleasure [prevent offspring]; in business only deceit; persons of either sex will be sought only for enjoyment; the Brahmin only for his mark of rank.
The different social orders will be separated only by external signs, facilitating passage from one to the other; if a man is poor his rights will not be respected; knowledge will be replaced by verbiage.
Poverty will be a sufficient cause for wickedness; hypocrisy will suffice for repute of virtue; cohabitation will be accepted as marriage; bathing will be only a cleansing [and not a sacred rite].
A distant lake will alone be considered sanctifying [and no longer the Ganges]; beauty will consist in the style of the hair; the ruling aim of all will be to fill their stomach; insolence will replace freedom.
The bodies of all living things will perish on account of the crimes of the Kali-Yuga; men belonging to the castes and to orders will no longer know the way marked out by the Vedas.
The law of heretics will prevail; kings shall conduct themselves like brigands, men shall devote themselves to theft, lying, to futile murders, and to all manner of shameful practices.
All castes will be like that of the Sudras; cows will appear like goats, hermitages like secular dwellings; parents will be no more than associates.6
Interpretations of the Cyclic Changes
The picture of the last times presented here corresponds as fully as possible to the prophecies of Western tradition. Although it is obviously intended primarily for the Indian peoples, the adaptation of it to our own civilization is mostly quite clear. Social changes such as the rise to dominance by the lower castes has its parallels in societies with no caste systems. The general mingling of all hereditary social groups is a universal feature of today’s world, where it is taken to affirm the value and the freedom of the individual; it passes unnoticed that freedom means nothing without the variety of possibilities which is suppressed by trends toward social uniformity.
Even more generally, there is the reductionist outlook which deprives many things of their meanings and confines them to their basically physical functions. Such reductions are brought about by a mentality for which truth and reality are somehow bound to be simple and crude, as though the transcendent simplicity of God were being sought in the opposite direction, that of matter. At any rate, the less God is believed in, the more the sovereign simplicity is sought in the only realm which is still humanly accessible, and where it has of course no place. Such reductionism is also an attempt to make a matter of principle out of what is really an involution of human awareness which works like another law of gravity.
There is one apparent inconsistency where the text speaks equally of the misery, indigence, and starvation suffered by those who live in the dark age, and of their hedonism, luxury, and sensuality. While there is certainly something contradictory in this, it is a contradiction which is always a part of the world as we know it, and emphasis is laid on it in the above because it is seen to increase in proportion as the end of the cycle is approached. It seems to be a typical part of the disequilibrium of the present age that everything should run to extremes, as though the suppression of natural and legitimate differences in society causes a compensating cosmic reaction in the formation of differences as inhuman in their own way as is the prevailing equalization. Sameness and difference are realities whose essence is beyond human control; man can only choose the forms they are to take.
At the same time, the physical wasting away of plant, animal and human life is said to develop in parallel with a general loss of the moral and intellectual qualities. Where it is said that knowledge is replaced with verbiage, the knowledge in question can best be understood as metaphysical knowledge. In the modern world genuine metaphysical knowledge has long since ceased to have any foothold in the prevailing culture, and the void it has left is filled with semi-fictional notions drawn from popularized science. The atrophy indicated is so extreme that it could not develop to the full except toward the end of the Kali-Yuga, or the continuity of life would have been broken long before now, however clearly manifest this change was in its earliest stages.
Another significant aspect of the mingling of the different castes and its production of an increasingly large group with no caste, is that the latter corresponds at a lower extreme to the primordial humanity or Hamsa which existed as a social unity before the division into castes took place. The aim of life is closely bound up with the union between individual personality and a universal eidetic reality. This was to the fullest degree realized by the primordial humanity, but with the passage of time there comes a decline in man’s capacity to take the measure of such a reality, with the result that Forms of lesser degrees of universality are substituted for the original, these lesser Forms being comprised in the various identities contained in the caste system. Finally, human limitations increase to a point where even identification with a relative ideal ceases to be possible and the individual nature remains within its particularity and with no connection to universality. It is possible to see in this historical transition from one kind of unity to another a clear instance of the three-phase law. The unities in question owe their quality to quite different causes, however. On the one hand, the unifying factor is a great spiritual potential which exceeds the possibilities of outward expression, and on the other it is simply an absence of potentialities.
The Counterfeiting of Spirituality
These two quotations emphasize a point already raised in connection with the transition from the state where men were above caste to one where they are nearly all beneath it. In a time when spiritual values are deformed or ignored altogether, the resulting confusion will be such that many will be able to believe they have ‘reached perfection’ without any experience appearing to contradict them. Here is another meeting of two extremes which are both characterized by freedom, though in the one case it is objectively real while in the other it is purely subjective and is sustained only by a confused race memory of the lost state it is mistaken for. There is thus a danger from the fact that the universal spiritual realities are integral to human nature: since man cannot cease to be aware of them as somehow part of his very being, he can easily mistake their presence as mere potentialities for their full actuality.
The fact that man is spiritual by nature or ‘theomorphic’, cannot by itself give anyone the right to attribute an actual spirituality to himself because this state is connatural with us, just as one cannot claim to be a musician simply because one has inherited a good ear for music. This mistake is the basis of a confusion in spiritual matters which has reached epidemic proportions in today’s world. It is aggravated by the near-elimination of metaphysical thought from the general culture, so that there is no insight into the correspondence between lowest and highest, and the way in which the lower state imitates the higher, as for example, where certain pathological conditions resemble mystical consciousness. Much of the problem arises from the pursuit of spiritual ideals outside any of the ancient traditions. The latter nearly always put difficulties and complications of their own in the way of such development, besides encouraging it, and this ensures that it is objectively real and joined to the work of Revelation, and not just a matter of the imagination, as may well be the case where enlightenment is made too easy.
Throughout these texts on the Kali-Yuga, the unifying factor is the relentless contraction in the range of human consciousness, which worsens with the passage of time. This relates to the number of distinct realities which one can be aware of and relate to at a given time. Since the need for physical survival demands attention to material needs and functions, this contraction of consciousness tends to eliminate everything but these functions, before it finally erodes even them. It may seem strange to speak of the mind as though it were a thing having a physical size, but it undoubtedly has its own analogue of spatial capacity. The variations which affect this have no corresponding effect on the success with which the mind comprehends or works with the things that still remain within its reach; on the contrary, there is often a compensating increase in its acuteness to balance its loss of scope. But clarity of this kind can easily be another source of illusion, because to grasp one part of reality brilliantly while being oblivious of the other things that human minds are capable of can be more opposed to the truth than perceiving all things equally dimly.
As for the question as to why there should be this continual contraction in the average size or capacity of the mind, the answer has been outlined in chapter 4, in connection with causal transmission. Any given generation is a cause in relation to the one which comes after it, and the property of natural causality is that the effect always falls short of the cause, failing which nature would be self-creating and self-perpetuating. Once again, the fact that there is more in mankind than can be comprehended by natural causality, and the fact that the causal contraction can be reversed in any given individual does not outweigh the social effect of the greater numbers of those in whom such possibilities are not realized. The agreement between Eastern and Western teachings on this subject is not unconnected with the fact that the Principle of Plenitude applies as much, and more, in Eastern doctrine. This appears in the freedom with which the latter delineates the endless succession of world cycles, in accordance with the idea that creation should have a temporal endlessness corresponding to the eternity of its Creator. This also results from a doctrine which is open to pantheism, however. The closer God and the world are drawn together, the more inevitable it is that there must be a correspondence between them, and it may well be a fear of a drift into pantheism which has inclined Christians to think as though there were a simple dichotomy between a wholly infinite God and a wholly finite creation. Nevertheless, the law of constantly diminishing effects in every causal series that time is made up of exemplifies the order implied by Plenitude. Because this affects the human mind, it suffices to explain the dilutions, distortions and inversions which corrode man’s relations to God, nature, and society equally.
1. Bhagavata Purana, Bk. xii, chap. 3.
2. Ibid., Bk. xii.
4. Taylor (1758–1836), who was a Neoplatonist by religion, translated all the works of Plato, Plotinus, and Proclus with the support of patrons.
5. Taurus, On the Eternity of the World, additional notes and translations by Taylor, p. 81.
6. The Bhagavata Purana, Bk. xii, chap. 3.