Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4
Vishnu Purana declares that “Knowledge is of two kinds, that which is derived from scripture, and that which is derived from reflection...the knowledge that is derived from reflection breaks upon the obscurity like the sun.” (VP: 6-5) Such knowledge is ‘discriminative knowledge’ that can analyse and make a distinction between what is right and what is not right. This is told in the context of analysing and understanding the word “Brahman” in the scriptures (VP: 2-12). In current times there is another word that needs to be understood through discriminative knowledge. That word is “YUGA”!
Span of Human life
There are misconceptions about Yuga doing rounds, the implications of which threaten the very rationale behind the Yuga concept. This article addresses the issues around yuga including the length of life of man in different yugas. To begin with let us see the issues around them and the inconsistencies found in those issues.
Issues and inconsistencies:
The following are the basic and the most commonly aired views on Yugas and related issues. The issues themselves look untenable in the face of the inconsistencies ingrained in them.
Issue 1: When we say ‘yuga’, many people think that it is about the four yugas namely, Satya or Krta, Treta, Dvapara and Kali maha yugas each running into lakhs of years. Of these we are in the Kali Maha yuga, something well established in the Sankalpa mantras. The preceding yuga of Dwapara must have gone on for 8,64,000 years and Ramayana must have occurred before that as it had happened in Treta Yuga.
Inconsistency: To say that Rama was born anytime before 8, 64,000 years sounds completely irrational, because the Homo sapiens that we are, have evolved only 3, 15,000 years ago. So by this Yuga scale we are putting Ramayana in an unrealistic time period when man was not yet born. This issue also derides the wisdom of the rishis, in that, those who had conceived the yuga scale running into millions of years that match with reality, could not conceive the time period of man.
Issue 2: This unrealistic time frame makes Ramayana a myth rather than a reality. It is not even possible to claim historicity of Ramayana as everything from geological to climatic conditions could have been different from now and from the description given in Ramayana. In this background, nothing related to Ramayana including the Janma bhumi can be claimed to be authentic.
Inconsistency: The fact is that Ramayana is an Itihasa – a true chronicle of the life of Rama. This is not possible if Rama was to have lived lakhs of years ago when the geography, flora and fauna explained by Valmiki could not have existed. On the other hand the flora, fauna and monsoonal description found in Valmiki Ramayana match with the current era of Holocene.
Issue 3: The long years of life attributed to Rama and Dasaratha match well with long life attributed to people of those former yugas. Rama had ruled for 11000 years and Dasaratha had lived for 60,000 years. And this concurs with Sanjaya’s version to Dhritarashtra on span of life in different yugas. 3000 years was the measure of life in Treta Yuga when Rama lived.
Inconsistency: There are two inconsistencies in this issue: 1. the human body can’t exist for that long. 2. If Rama had ruled for 11,000 years, it also means that all his three brothers had lived that long. They were born around the same time and departed along with him at the same time. Why is there no mention of the same life span for Lakshmana and other brothers in Ramayana? Similarly if Dasaratha had lived for 60,000 years, what was the life span of his three spouses who outlived him? Why is there no mention about them?
A look at these issues and inconsistencies show that somewhere there is a mismatch between our understanding of the Yuga-scale and the age of man with what has been originally told by the rishis. So let us begin from what the rishis had actually said about the life span of man.
The life span of man according to Vedic culture
Vedic Thought assigns basic life-span of 100 units for the Creator God, that is, the Four-faced Brahma. Brahma lives for 100 years of age. The duration of each year is measured by Yuga.
The same 100 units are assigned to human beings also, but the duration is measured by years and seasons.
(1) From RV 1-89 -9.
The famous Shanti mantra “Bhadram karNebhi” found in Mundaka, Mandukya and Prasna Upanishads belongs to Rig Vedic mantra on Visvadevas seeking mainly healthy and long life. And how long the Rishi had asked for? It is for 100 autumns! Within that time scale the body decays and the children would have become fathers. Let there be no intervention within this life span so that one may live a full life of 100 years.
“śatamin nu śarado anti devā yatrā naścakrā jarasaṃ tanūnām |
putrāso yatra pitaro bhavanti mā no madhyā rīriṣatāyurghantoḥ ||”
putrāso yatra pitaro bhavanti mā no madhyā rīriṣatāyurghantoḥ ||”
“A hundred autumns stand before us, O ye Gods, within whose space ye bring our bodies to decay;
Within whose space our sons become fathers in turn. Break ye not in the midst our course of
Within whose space our sons become fathers in turn. Break ye not in the midst our course of
What do we infer from this?
The human body decays within 100 years and it is not possible to pull on beyond that. Issue no 3 is addressed here. Vedic Thought is practical to the core and does not assign 1000s of years to people on earth.
(2) Mid-day prayers to Sun.
Of the three time salutations to the Sun known as Sandhyavandana, the mid-day vandana prays for a life time of 100 autumns or years, nothing less and nothing more. The prayer is to see the sun for 100 years, live for 100 years, live with joy and fame for 100 years, hear good words for 100 years and live without being won by bad deeds for 100 years. Everything that one can aspire for is asked for duration of 100 years only.
(3) Valmiki Ramayana 5-34-6
Sita also echoes the longevity of 100 years in her dialogue with Hanuman at Ashoka vana. On seeing Hanuman having come to redeem her from distress she utters an adage of her times, “yehi jivantam aanandho naram varsha shathaath api”. It means ‘Happiness rushes to the surviving man even though (it be) at the end of a hundred years”. Coming from Sita, this dialogue and adage cannot be ignored as she lived in Treta Yuga when Dasaratha was said to have lived for 60,000 years and Rama ruled for 11,000 years.
(4) Chandogya Upanishad 3-16.1 to 16.7
Human life is a yajna consisting of 3 phases. The morning phase consists of 24 years, the noon phase consists of 44 years and the evening phase consists of 48 years. Having known this, the sage Mahidasa also known as Aitareya conquered diseases and lived for 116 years. One who realises this lives for 116 years.
All the above shows that there was no confusion among the ancient rishis on how many years man can expect to live. It is for 100 years. There are other verses in addition to the above but they don’t exceed 120 years. Parasra foresees a maximum of 120 years for human beings in his work, Brihad Parasara Hora Sastra. But the general life expectancy is 100 years of age that is well established in the hymn of blessing - ‘Shatamaanam bhavathi shataayu: purusha:…’ Anything other than this span of life cannot be taken at face value. One must apply discriminatory sense of knowledge to understand such passages.
Contradiction to 100 years of age.
Having known that Vedic Thought had pitched for only 100 years of life, any passage to the contrary must be understood without transgressing this notion. Rishis were always fond of telling things secretly. They had not given us everything as ready-made. They had wanted us to think, imbibe and churn out thoughts that are in consonance with what they had given. In this backdrop, the verses from Mahabharata on life span in the 4 yugas must be studied.
Sanjaya tells Dhritharashtra in Mahabharata (6- 10), that 4000 years is the measure of life in Krita Yuga; 3000 in Treta yuga and 2000 in Dwapara Yuga. There is no fixed duration of life in Kali yuga. Some people tend to interpret this as actual life span of a person in those yugas which is against Nature and also against Vedic wisdom – some of which were outlined above. When we look at these verses along with the context, the context unravels the mystery of the numbers of other yugas.
While expressing the number of years in Kali yuga, Sanjaya does not give a number but just says that people die in the womb and also as soon as after birth. This is not so in the other yugas, where men get children in hundreds and thousands. Dying in the womb or at an young age means that the lineage gets ended with them. This means two things (1) the physical valour, energy and heath are low in Kali yuga to procreate and sustain life after birth and (2) there is no continuing lineage of a person for many generations in Kali yuga. One can witness lineages being short or coming to an end abruptly in Kali yuga. That is the import.
This was not so in the earlier yugas with Krita yuga leading on top. Begetting progeny in hundreds and thousands cannot be taken to mean literally but could mean that there was an unbroken and continuing lineage in those yugas. In the Rig Vedic verse quoted above, the prayer was to live for 100 years within which time sons become fathers. This verse visualizes a continuing thread of the lineage. At the most the lineage continued unbroken for 4000 years in Krita yuga. It was so for 3000 years in Treya Yuga when Ramayana happened. The list of ancestors of Rama and Sita narrated at the time of their marriage shows how their family tree had continued to exist before them uninterruptedly. This is not the case with people born in Kali yuga.
Have people lived across Yugas?
There is another issue in this context of people having lived across yugas. Persons like Hanuman and Muchukunda had appeared in different yugas. There are others too who are supposed to live permanently for ever (chiranjeevi). Is this possible? What do texts say about this?
Hanuman of Treta Yuga appeared to Bheema of Dwapara yuga in Mahabharata 3:145-148. (In his dialogue with Bheema, Hanuman describes the yuga system). His appearance in another yuga as an evidence of continuing existence makes some people think that here is a case of long life of 1000s of years of those yugas.
In this context let me draw the attention of readers to a similar incident reported in recent times. Many would have heard about Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the ‘Father of Modern Yoga’. The Yoga as we know today has sprung up from him. How did he get his knowledge about Yoga? It was from his distant ancestor Nathamuni, the first Acharya of Srivaishnava tradition. Nathamuni himself had received all the hymns of Divya Prabhanda from Nammazhwar of by-gone times, who appeared in person before him cutting across time.
In a somewhat similar way Natahmuni appeared to Krishnamacharya and imparted his composition on Yoga sastra. (Read “The Yoga of the Yogi: The Legacy of T. Krishnamacharya” by T. Krishnamacharya’s grandson Kausthub Desikachar). In today’s language we can say that Nathamuni did a time travel to the 20th century and imparted his knowledge to Krishnamacharya. In traditional language of the Vedic culture it can be said that Nathamuni
continues to live across Time.
Similar instances like this have been reported from time to time. The appearance of Hanuman and Muchukunda in different time periods can also be explained in this way. There is a textual authority for this kind of long life cutting across Time.
In his book Brihad Parasara Hora sastra, sage Parasara does mention about the probability of very long life to those born under certain planetary conditions. Certain combinations in Dasa varga give rise to limitless longevity, living till the end of a yuga and living the life span of a sage. (Verses 55-58 in the chapter on ‘Longevity’). These combinations give rise to yogis and siddhas who live beyond their destructible physical form and appear as they are and at will to those to whom they want to appear.
By having appeared to Krishnamacharya a century ago, we may say that sage Nathamuni had lived for a definite span of 1000 years. Hanuman will live for as long as Rama nama lives on earth. His yogic power and determination will make him live across the millennia and appear to those whom he wants to.
What is implied is that some persons are endowed with a very long life span, and are not bound by physical laws. But they are exceptions. They cannot be quoted as examples for long life supposedly associated with yugas.
People living for 1000s of years – myth or reality?
There is a basic measure of life for man (quoted above) and Vedic culture identified it as 100 years. This is true scientifically too. But there is also a tradition in the same Vedic culture to assign numerous numbers of years to a person. Particularly kings have been praised as having 1000s of years of life. King Dasaratha lived for 60,000 years; Rama ruled for 11,000 years; and in the Tamil lands, the Pandyan king Maakeerti in whose court Tolkappiyam of the 3rd Sangam age (started around 1500 BCE) was inaugurated, was in throne for 24,000 years.
Though all this looks like poetic exaggerations, there is a calculation behind them. This is known from the Tamil Sangam composition called ‘Paditru Patthu’, in which the poet ‘Perum kundrur Kizhar’ gives the following equation for the age of the Cheran king ‘Kudakko Ilanjeral Irumporai’. (verse 90)
1 day in King’s life = 1 month
1 month = 1 year
1 year = 1 Oozhi (duration not known, but it refers to deluge)
1 Oozhi = 1 Varambu (duration not known, but could refer to deluge after a Mahayuga)
Similar view is echoed in Mahabharata wherein Bheema says that for an exalted person observing certain difficult vows of Vedic culture, one day (ahorātraṃ) is equal to one year. Yudhsithira was one such exalted person. At the expiry of first thirteen days after they commenced exile, he is deemed to have completed 13 years in exile. Therefore they can go back to Kauravas and reclaim their lands.
21 tathā bhārata dharmeṣu dharmajñair iha dṛśyate
ahorātraṃ mahārāja tulyaṃ saṃvatsareṇa hi
22 tathaiva veda vacanaṃ śrūyate nityadā vibho
saṃvatsaro mahārāja pūrṇo bhavati kṛcchrataḥ
23 yadi vedāḥ pramāṇaṃ te divasād ūrdhvam acyuta
trayodaśa samāḥ kālo jñāyatāṃ pariniṣṭhitaḥ )
This tradition if applied to Rama, equates 11,000 years of his rule to 31 years. The same applied to Pandyan king Maakeerti shows that 24,000 years of his rule was actually for 66.6 years.
The same rule if applied to Dasaratha who was supposed to have ruled for 60,000 years comes to an unrealistic span of years. So here we have to apply discriminatory sense of understanding. The king was old and was in throne for a long time. It appeared that even 60 years of his age or rule looked like 60,000 years!
The underlying idea is that time is relative with respect to experiences and perceptions! The period of 14 years of exile was not expressed as a long period in Ramayana. But the one year of confinement in Lanka could have been felt like an aeon by Sita. In this connection one can quote a story involving sages Vasishtha and Vishwamitra in which a second of satsanga offered by Vasishtha was able to hold the weight of the world held by Adisesha, than 16,000 years of tapas of Vishwamitra!
True nature of things, if can be known better by long measures of time, then rishis have indulged in such kind of talks. It is for us to understand their messages without violating the basic norms set by them.
Rule of Rama for 11,000 years.
In Valmiki Ramayana, Narada tells Valmiki that for 11,000 years “Ramo rajyam upaasitva Brahma lokam prayaasyati” (VR 1-1-97). There is an incongruity in this verse.
Does this verse convey that Rama lived for long as to be in the throne for 11,000 years? It is not possible, for, this is contrary to the 100 year concept of Vedic culture.
Then how to reconcile the incongruity?
The reverence to Rama and Rama rajya (Rama-rajyam upaasitva) continues to exist till this date in this country.
Before entering the Sarayu Rama tells Hanuman, “As long as my story is spoken off in this world, till then bear your praana as per my commands" (VR:7- 98-25)
So Hanuman continues to be around, as Rama-nama is still being chanted. So the Rama rajya of 11,000 years is not yet over.
When Rama is completely forgotten, that marks the end of 11,000 years of Rama’s rule. At that time Rama in the form as the king of Ayodhya would have faded from memory – thereby implying that it had reached the realms of Brahma Loka. Within this period of 11,000 years, Rama can appear to anyone whom he wills. Beyond that period, He can still appear in any form to those who aspire to see Him, for, He is Brahman. This feat is possible for Brahman anytime and at all times, in the grand scale of Time
Next we will move on to what is Yuga and what is meant by the long years associated with Yugas.
Time scale in vogue in the 19th century
We generally believe that the Chatur Yuga system was in vogue all these days. This is based on the Sankalpa mantra in which time is counted from Kali yuga that started in 3102 BCE in the Gregorian calendar. But there were different yuga systems in use in different parts of India at the time of British occupation. Prominent one was Parasurama yuga of 1000 year duration followed in the regions of Malaya from Mangalore to Cape comorin. (See here). In south Indian regions including Madurai, Grahaparivrithi cycle of 90 years was in use. In other regions, the eras named after kings were in use.
However the 60 year cycle of Jupiter era was widely in use across India and also in Tibet. A modified form of it was in use in China. The names of the years of this cycle of Jupiter continue even now throughout India (Prabhava etc). These 60 years keep repeating endlessly in this system. This system of Jupiter has its origins in Vedanga Jyothisha of Rig Veda. Its basal unit consists of 5 years which was originally called as a YUGA!
(to be continued)