The Mystery of Time


Time was not, for it lay asleep in the infinite bosom of Duration.

—Stanzas from the Book of Dzyan, I, 2

Be free from the future; be free of the past; be free in the present; cross to the yonder shore. With a mind wholly free you will not fall into birth and death.

Dhammapada, Verse 348

This month brings us to an important astronomical event which marks the beginning of a new season of the year. The 21st of June is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere.

Such an event is not without significance for humans and affords an opportunity to reflect upon Time. Nature's acts are all cyclic and periodical, and her movements can best be described by moving circles ever returning on themselves. Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita refers to Himself as "Time matured" (XI, 32) and speaks of the Universal Wheel of Time (XVIII, 61).

But what is Time? We cannot see time; we cannot hear it, or smell it, or taste it; we cannot touch it! And yet no one doubts that time is and that it dominates our lives. Our every move is dictated by this most elusive and illusive factor—the time element. Its mystery has haunted human minds down the ages, and yet even today our modern scientist must accept the fact that he has not yet penetrated it. Time changes man; yet man cannot change time.

We speak of saving time and also of wasting it. We say time flies or time drags. And yet we cannot say what time itself is! Our age is one of speed. We are constantly inventing mechanical devices to hasten all tasks and to traverse distances in space with ever-increasing speed. We want to go faster and faster because we want to "save" time. The story is told of an old man who failed to respond enthusiastically to the glowing accounts of the speed of air travelling. He listened unmoved, and then asked: "But what will you do with the time so 'saved'?" It is not merely saving time that makes for progress, but how we utilize it.

However, while time is imperceptible to our sensorium, we can measure it. From the remotest antiquity men have sought ways and means of measuring time and found in Nature the basis for such measurements. Because astronomical events ever recur cyclically they were chosen to measure that unknown factor, time. We really measure the interval betweeen the occurrence of an event and its recurrence. And so we have come to regard time as the interval between events.

For us mortals time is measured by the journey of our earth through space. Our planet's trip around the Sun, the monthly orbit of the moon, and the daily rotation of the earth on its axis have given us our year, our month, our day. But while we measure the passage of time, time itself remains unknown.

In modern physics it has been found convenient to use "events" instead of "points" in describing physical phenomena, and so to the three dimensions of space, viz., latitude, longitude, and altitude, has been added a fourth—Time. Thus, if we want to describe the position of a moving object we measure its three dimensions in space and record the exact time of our observations. This is one of the key ideas in Einstein's theory of relativity. Time was regarded by Einstein as a fourth dimension. In his theory these four dimensions are so intimately related that they are referred to by one single expression, "time-space." Einstein's theory of relativity increased our knowledge about time, but did no reveal how to control, check, or direct it. We still remain the subjects of time.

What lies behind the passing flow of time? When we say this day has passed away, what do we really mean? Where has it gone to? We speak of the past, the present, and the future, but these exist only in reference to the consciousness of the one who experiences them on this plane. Madame Blavatsky offers this definition in the form of a question: "What is Time, but the panoramic succession of our states of consciousness?" (The Secret Doctrine, I, 44). And in that same work, in the second volume, explaining that humanity is the child of cyclic destiny, she concludes with the following quotation from a Sage:

THE PRESENT IS THE CHILD OF THE PAST; THE FUTURE, THE BEGOTTEN OF THE PRESENT. AND YET, O PRESENT MOMENT! KNOWEST THOU NOT THAT THOU HAST NO PARENT, NOR CANST THOU HAVE A CHILD; THAT THOU ART EVER BEGETTING BUT THYSELF? BEFORE THOU HAST EVEN BEGUN TO SAY "I AM THE PROGENY OF THE DEPARTED MOMENT, THE CHILD OF THE PAST," THOU HAST BECOME THAT PAST ITSELF. BEFORE THOU UTTEREST THE LAST SYLLABLE, BEHOLD! THOU ART NO MORE THE PRESENT BUT VERILY THAT FUTURE. THUS, ARE THE PAST, THE PRESENT, AND THE FUTURE, THE EVER-LIVING TRINITY IN ONE—THE MAHAMAYA OF THE ABSOLUTE IS." (The Secret Doctrine, II, 446)

The above gives us the metaphysical key to solve our problem: Behind time, lies Eternity. Time belongs to the world of conditioned existence, the world of constant change. It begins at any given moment in reference to a particular event or a particular phenomenon. But behind that beginning, Time which is infinite and measureless already was because it ever is. Thus, conditioned time, which can be measured, which begins and ends, arises out of Timelessness or Eternal Duration. And that is why the present, the past, and the future have validity only in this world of relativity. They cease to be valid when we transcend that which pertains to the world of changing phenomena. This is suggested in the mystic title given to Parabrahm, Kalahamsa, "the swan in and out of time."

Can we transcend the illusion of time? All mystics and sages answer in the affirmative. Meister Eckhart refers to the illusion of time as hindrance which must be overcome if one is to hear the voice of the inner god. He says:

Whoso will hear the Wisdom of the Father dwell deep and abide at home, and be at unity with himself. Three things hinder us from hearing the everlasting Word. The first is fleshliness, the second is distraction, the third is the illusion of time. If a man could get free of these, he would dwell in eternity, and in the spirit, and in solitude, and in the desert, and there would hear the everlasting Word.

"Accept the woes of birth," says The Voice of the Silence, and Lord Buddha taught as the first of the Four Noble Truths: "Sorrow Is." Have we accepted this central fact? Not merely passively, but with understanding? Rising above it will not be possible before intelligent acceptance. The first step in becoming, it has been rightly said, is Resignation. But such resignation must be a dynamic quality rooted in our inner faith, in our perception that the Reality is always present, here and now, and can be apprehended amidst the moving, ever-fluctuating stream of the temporal and the evanescent.

The establishing of an orderly and rhythmic pattern of life in harmony with Nature's laws, the observance of punctuality, the unfolding of skill in action—these have been declared by all Teachers of Life to be the means of realizing the presence of the Eternal and the Uncreate within our own Soul-consciousness.

We cannot recall the past. We are unable to anticipate the future. But the present is ours, and while we cannot tell what Karma has in store for us, we can always decide what happens to us, inside of ourselves, what our attitude should be, how we deal with whatever may come to us. When all is said and done it is our own response to life that counts and that transforms the world for us.

Dispassion coupled with wakeful attention will help us to live neither in the past, nor in the future, but in the Eternal Now. While we deal with each day to the best of our ability, while we discharge our duties with zest and integrity, accepting cheerfully the limitations of embodied existence, let us endeavour to apprehend the presence of the Divine.

The cry of the world is for Light, more Light. As we approach the Summer Solstice, let us determine to draw nearer to the Light within our own hearts that we may reflect its golden radiance in our daily lives, and thus help brighten the lives of our fellow men.




In living your life of peace and virtue be indifferent to praise and censure alike of mankind.

—Sri Ramakrishna


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