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The Dilemma of Fixing Time                                                          

By Pondicherry Poet/Essayist/ Critic Aju Mukhopadhyay


Can we really Catch the Time!

By simple observation of the sun, moon and stars; changes in the seasons, day in and day out, by observing the fall of night ending in dawn prehistoric man began could guess the time they were passing through.  Certain sights, sounds and smells mark the movement of time. The smell of certain flowers at certain times tells us the season and the time precisely. Our biological clock tells us the rhythm of our body machines; body clocks the time of our waking up from bed. Our diurnal routine reminds us of the time as it approaches. A quivering ray of the Sun on the cornice or its position in the sky tells us the time of the day. One may tell the time in the evening or night, observing the sky and the position of the moon and stars and other celestial bodies in it.

How Man Measured Time  

Improvement in measuring time came by stages; Sundial, used first in Egypt; Hourglass using sands of time and then the Water Clock, used first in Greek, were the devices man invented.  

     By the 1300 C.E. appeared the mechanical clock using weights or springs recording escapement with lever, using toothed wheel at certain intervals. In the 1400’s another important discovery in timekeeping was made using coiled springs which used small coiled springs unwinding at a speed controlled by an escapement, This was the time when clocks and watches were produced; the predecessors of what we see today in different varieties. Pendulum clock saw the light of day in 1656.

     Jantar Mantar is a unique construction with sand cement in New Delhi, India, one of the five observatories built by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur in the year 1724.  This observatory completed the purpose of compiling astronomical records along with the task of estimating time and tracking the movement of celestial bodies such as moon, sun, and other planets. It is a developed system of observing the movement of planetary bodies in the sky in apparently very simple way but actually it is a very intelligent geometrical measurement of time.    

     In 1714 the British Parliament offered a cash reward to anyone who could invent a clock accurate enough for use in navigation at sea for no clock discovered earlier could save the sailors dying for want of accurate time while navigating the sea. After 4 attempts John Harrison finally succeeded at inventing a small clock accurate enough to use for navigation at sea in 1761.

     At the dawn of the 20th century, a nearer to accurate record shows that only women wore wristwatches. No self-respecting “real man” would wear one. But Necessity Knows no Law. Soldiers wore wristwatches during the First World War   because taking out a pocket watch to check the time was difficult or next to   impossible in the battle field. After the war was over it was considered “socially acceptable” to wear wrist watches by the men folk and they became popular. We saw sometimes though rarely during our childhood, that an elderly gentleman brought out a watch at the end of a chain kept in his pocket. None so uses now except in films recording older times.

     Half a century later digital watches which use electrical currents running through quartz crystals to cause vibration and tell the time very accurately began to appear. In 1967 atomic clock which used the oscillations of cesium (133 atoms) to tell time, was invented. This clock had an error ratio of 1 second for every 1.4 million years. In 1999 scientists developed the cesium fountain atomic clock, which is off by only one second every 20 million years. This clock appears to be the most accurate in the world. But all these are dividing the time in our clock, devised to record the ongoing time as a result of the rotation of earth, moon, sun and such bodies, in their own way.     

Time Whole or Broken! 

Time is neither circled by the earth nor even by the universe. It is beyond. We shall try to catch a glimpse of it from the ancient time keepers to its latest prophets, going back and coming forth on our way to find Time’s role. From the beginning of civilization the scientists and philosophers were bewildered by becoming aware of the presence of time and space invisibly like some other objects in nature surrounding them. They questioned their cause and effect. The big questioners and discoverers were mostly scientists who had a concrete base behind their questions and findings. There were philosophers too who tried to find the answers rather than putting the questions.

Stephen Hawking’s Scientific Speculation 

Stephen Hawking, the great British scientist of our time who has just parted from us, tried to probe the existence of time, space and other things in his A Brief History of Time. He says that “There are at least three different arrows of time. First, there is the thermodynamic arrow of time, direction of time in which disorder or entropy increases. Then there is the psychological arrow of time. This is the direction in which we feel time passes, the direction in which we remember the past but not the future. Finally there is the cosmological arrow of time. This is the direction of time in which the universe is expanding rather than contracting.” (Hawking 153)

     “To summarise”, he writes, “the laws of science do not distinguish between the forward and backward directions of time.” (Hawking 160)

     He says that the thermodynamic and psychological arrows are essentially the same and that intelligent beings can exist only in the expanding phase. “The no boundary proposal for the universe predicts the existence of a well defined thermodynamic arrow of time because the universe must start off in smooth and ordered state.” (Hawking 160-61)

     The concluding chapter of the book, “Conclusion”, is interesting. He cannot arrive at any conclusion in the absence of any definite clue.  

     “When we combine quantum mechanics with general relativity, there seems to be a new possibility that did not arise before: that space and time together might form a finite, four dimensional space without singularities or boundaries, like the surface of the earth but with more dimensions . . . . But if the universe is completely self-contained, with the singularities or boundaries, and completely described by a unified theory, that has profound implications for the role of God as Creator.” (Hawking 184)

     This conclusion is revolting to a scientist. So he concludes by putting a volley of questions, may be to God himself: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him?” (Hawking 184)

     A god seeker also may have these questions but Stephen is a bit frustrated and tells, in keeping with his scientific pride, “The people whose business is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories . . . .  Philosophers reduced the scope of their enquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said, ‘The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.’ What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!” (Hawking 185) 

     But Hawking is not arrogant. Humorous and understanding, he has a rational personality. He remembers that scientific theories are always susceptible to changes though many of the broad scientific discoveries and ideas are guiding us. He mentions in the book that Newton and Einstein committed mistakes and admits that he too committed mistakes. He admits at the beginning- “Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory.” (Hawking 11)

     Hawking’s quest for time remains inconclusive.

Concept of Time in Hindu Tradition   

Hawkins mentions only Western scientists and philosophers. But many great Oriental philosophers realized God and knew things by identity. They too wrote great philosophical treatises; not just religious books prescribing rituals. There were great Astronomers and mathematicians. Vedic mathematics is a great subject being explored by some great scholars of the Western World.

     According to ancient or ‘Sanatana’ Hindu scripture, the time is divided into equinoctial cycles of ascending and descending Arc, each divided into four Yugas; ‘Kali’, ‘Dwapara’, ‘Treta’ and ‘Satya’, corresponding to the Greek ideas of four ages; Iron, Bronze, Silver and Golden Ages, wrote Yogananda referring to a series of 13 articles by Sri Yukteswar’s ‘Yuga theory’ that was published in the magazine titled “East-West” from September 1932 to September 1933.    

     Yukteswar calculated each cycle to be of 24000 years. The ancients calculated the life of the universe too which was in terms of many lakh solar years, corresponding to the present scientific speculation extending to many millions years. But ironically, none of us will remain to see the truth of such calculations extending to billions of years which has been described as few twinkles of an eye of ‘Brahma’, the supreme Indian Godhead of Creation, for our time and the divine time beyond the spheres of the universe do not match. (Yogananda 174)

He is not Slain in the Slaying of the Body (Na Hanyate Hanyamane Sharire)

When we come to the divine reality, as realized by the Rishis of the lore, it remains in essence inexpressible for he is beyond any earthly conception of time, he is beyond time, he is the Time. The God is essentially timeless and featureless.

     “The wise One is not born, neither does he die: he came not from anywhere, neither is he any one: he is unborn, he is everlasting, he is ancient and sempiternal: he is not slain in the slaying of the body.” (Upanishad 248)

     “He dwelleth above and beyond the past, the present and the future and Time hath no part in him. Worship ye the Adorable whose shape is the whole universe and who hath become in the Universe, worship ye the Lord, the Ancients of Days in your own hearts who sitteth.” (Upanishad 377)

     And the realized words of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tse are- “Tao is in us. Tao is in repose . . . . The true sages follow the Teaching without words, that which remains unexpressed. And who will ever express it? Those who know what Tao is, don’t speak of it, those who speak, don’t know it.” (Wei 7) 

 “Tao is neither good, nor bad: Tao is real. Tao alone is . . .” (Wei 9)

Time is Eternity of the Eternal                                                                                                                                                                               

“He is the Timeless and Time; he is Space and all that is in space; he is Causality and the cause and the effect . . . . All realities and all aspects and all semblances are the Brahman; Brahman is the Absolute, the transcendent and incommunicable, the Supracosmic Existence that sustains the cosmos, the cosmic Self that upholds all beings, but it is too the self of each individual . . . . the Brahman alone is, and because of It all are, for all are the Brahman . . . . it is by his Shakti, his Conscious Power, that he manifests himself in Time and governs the universe.” (Divine 324-25)

     And here time is explicitly defined:    

     “The cardinal fact is that any given Time or Space or any given Time-Space as a whole is a status of being in which there is a movement of the consciousness and force of the being, a movement that creates or manifests events and happenings; it is the relation of the consciousness

that sees and the force that formulates the happenings, a relation inherent in the status, which determines the sense of Time and creates our awareness of Time-movement, Time-relation, Time-measure. In its fundamental truth the original status of Time behind all its variations is nothing else than the eternity of the Eternal, just as the fundamental truth of Space, the original sense of its reality, is infinity of the Infinite.” (Divine 362)

Time walks with us                                                                           

The path of time has not been defined. Scientists cannot catch it entirely. In the vortex of time even a scientist becomes a philosopher: “But the best of evidence we have that time travel is not possible, and never will be, is that we have not been invaded by the hordes of tourists from the future.” 1

     Looking at time from a different perspective we find that we are not out of it but in it. Time walks with us catching one of our fingers. A yogi may be free from the clutches of time for he lives in other regions of consciousness. An idiot, a mad or a nincompoop does not understand the implications of time in his life. Together they walk but are not aware of it. Everyone else with some awareness and common sense, living a worldly life, realizes the effect of time on his or her body, the tangible call of time at different phases of his /her life; the definite mark of ageing finally leads to death. True that many do not catch the vibrations of time; the current of its passing through his body, touching his sense and mind, till a time when his hairs start graying and falling, teeth begin to lose hold and legs shake. Many remain unaware of his age like an uncouth country man unaware of the time past.

     The modern time is sharper. Men look sharp. There is no denying that time is passing keeping us witness to it among Nature all around us, witness to conditions of our neighbours, witness to changing phases of market economy. We act and react with each happening though most of us act passively. Sometimes we may be aware that during a passing pahse of time consisting of few day-steps we get up at the same time, do routine works at the same time and go to bed at the same time in spite of our wishes to the contrary. We come to the same measured time unless we deliberately or violently break it.

     More a modern man is sharp more he looks at himself, compares his position to the others; ambition pulls him further. Whatever one is one may further progress. A moneyed man may want more money, a man of reputation by birth, family connection and heritage work to gain more reputation. The more one knows more he runs after knowledge. In every field of life’s business; politics, sports, professional jobs, performing art, industry or agriculture, one may always go higher and higher. But one is bound to recognize his self-limitations, earlier or later, at least inwardly.

     In a competitive world situation one has to run to gain his or her position to the maximum extent. And in such a run time runs with him. All of us run but if we fall back Time will go ahead leaving us on the road side. So the modern man has learnt the phrase- ‘Time Management’, to plan how to achieve the best in a limited time frame. But it is no guarantee that such a rat race will take us to the heights. “Keep time, look sharp, manage your time– Okay but one needs to know that time is something extremely impersonal. It waits for none while it honors everyone. Wastage of time may be a barrier to all progress and the wise use of it may give us the joy of progress and freedom.  

     Here one has to pause; what is progress? What is defeat in life? Is it best to always run to gain something materialistic or is it better to wait and see, to look back sometimes? These are some of the very important and core points to ponder over. And they take us to the other areas away from time. All these are part of our literature, the literature we create in ourselves which mostly remain unexpressed. Time is in literature and beyond it. Time is in us and beyond us.


 Notes and References

  1. Stephen Hawking. “The Future of the Universe” in Black Holes and Baby Universes and other essays. Great Britain: Bantam Press (Bantam Books). 1993. 140. Paperback

Work Cited

  1. Hawking Stephen. A Brief History of Time. Great Britain: Bantam Books. 1989. Paperback
  2. Yogananda Paramahansa. Autobiography of a Yogi. Mumbai: Jaico Publishing House. 1997. Reprint. Paperback
  3. Sri Aurobindo. The Upanishads. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library; Sri Aurobindo Ashram. 1972. V. 12. Hardbound
  4. Wu Wei. Translation: Shyamsundar. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo’s Acion. 1997. Paperback
  5. Sri Aurobindo. The Life Divine. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library; Sri Aurobindo Ashram. 1970. V.18. Hardbound

© Aju Mukhopadhyay, 2020






























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