In Hindu philosophy, there is no absolute beginning to the universe and no absolute ending. Therefore, time is not conceived of in a linear fashion as is common in western philosophy. Instead, time is seen as a wheel turning within a larger wheel, and moksha, or the release from this wheel is one of the goals of of the Hindu devotee. In William Buck's Mahabharata, time is viewed by the characters as an enemy of sorts, a personified entity which causes loss. It is the intent of this paper to show how Buck presents a cohesive treatment of the concept of time in has retelling of the Mahabharata story. I would like to explore seven elements of his story and try to explain how they are connected into a meaningful whole.
In order to set the stage, if you will, for Buck's treatment of time, I would like to start by briefly going over how time is a part of the Hindu religion. Time in Hinduism is generally conceived of as a wheel rotating through cycles of sarga (creation) and pralaya (destruction) called kappa cycles. Each kappa cycle is a life of Brahma which lasts 100 Brahmic years or 311,040,000,000,000 human years. At the beginning of each kappa the world is created as Brahma is born and at the end of each the world is destroyed as he dies. Between each kappa, a period of 100 Brahmic years passes before Brahma is born again and the next kappa cycle begins. A further aspect of the kappa cycles is that they are made up of 1000 great aeons which are themselves made up of four yugas (ages). These four ages are Saga Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, and Kali Yuga which is the present age. Buck uses none of these terms in his work, yet it is clear after a close reading that the philosophy behind them is not unknown to him.
The first way in which Buck uses the concept of time is the self-reflexive use of the frame story to represent the transcendence of time. As Vaisampayana says at the end of Buck's Mahabharata (hereafter often referred to simply as the Mahabharata): "this romance stretches the mind. By the lamp of history is the whole mansion of nature's womb illumined" (Mahabharata, 411). There seem to be countless levels of storytelling which are posited within different time frames of Buck's text, but I have found that there are four primary ones. First is the level of this text as written by Buck. This level does not get much self-reflexive treatment, but because of the other levels one must always consider it as an integral part of discovering the significance of history and time as related in the Mahabharata. The second level is that in which Sauti, a character in the text, is telling a story to Saunaka about how he first heard the Mahabharata. Third is the level in which Vaisampayana tells the story to Janamejaya, Astika, Sauti, and Vyasa. This may be called the primary frame within which the majority of the Mahabharata, or the tale of the Pandavas and the Kurus, is contained. The fourth level contains all the tales within the narrative of Vaisampayana told by characters such as Vyasa, Bhima, Sanjaya, and others.
What Buck, and the Mahabharata, do with this frame structure is demonstrate to an audience how the past affects the present, and how time can be transcended by relinquishing the linear conception of time. For instance, the stories told by other characters in the tale affect or help to enlighten a character's current situation, just as the events described by Vaisampayana are meant to enlighten Janamejaya, and the work as a whole is meant to relate to the lives of any who read it. The linear nature of time is thus distorted as it is shown that past events can recur in a new form in a future time or can have an impact on events in the present or future.
Instead of being conceived of as linear,
time is posited as a wheel in the Hindu philosophy, and inherent in the
concept of a spinning wheel is the notion of rhythm. Spokes turn around
and around in a wheel, establishing a certain rhythm. In Hindu philosophy,
the heavenly rhythm, or the cosmic order is called rita And the
nectar of immortality is amrita, the heavenly rhythm which is different
from the rhythm of the world. An example of this difference is seen in
the following quote from the insert before chapter 2:
Now the wonderful world is born,That time is different in the heavens and to the gods than it is to mortals is a central point made in the Mahabharata. All of these concepts are themselves bound only by the conceptually non-linear nature of eternity.
In an instant it dies,
In a breath it is renewed.
From the slowness of our eye
And the quickness of God's hand
We believe in the world.(Mahabharata, 25).
The second way in which Buck deals with the concept of time is seen in the ideas of immortality and rebirth presented in the text. Following are a few examples:
amrita is called the essence of life (Mahabharata, 10)
Krishna to Arjuna by the ocean: "Nara,
this is how we meet - by the water that was milk. Welcome to you" (Mahabharata,
Once one embraces the goal of attaining perfection, and thus a transition into eternity, the trials of life become more bearable because each moment becomes somewhat meaningless compared to the vastness of existence. This is not a nihilistic philosophy, rather it shows that by accepting that we cannot change the course of time, we can then concentrate on living our lives as best we can in order to achieve moksha, that point at which we can be free from the painful cycle of rebirths and thus transcend time. Vaisampayana says: "Time is the root and the seed, it gives and it takes away. I bow to God, who lives in this world within us...God is eternal, and because it is God who is praised here, it is for this that such merit is gained by hearing of the olden time...The words of Vyasa can never be untrue" (Mahabharata, 328). These quotes connect:
(1) the story which praises God and contains many historiesThus, each person, or their jiva, is equated with a story, and both are shown by this text to be ultimately eternal and thus outside of the confines of time. Both the frame structure and the philosophical treatment of time within that frame demonstrate this transcendence.
(2) a God which is eternal, and
(3) the idea that every person is capable of being a god, or worthy or reverence and respect.
A third treatment of time is seen in Buck's personification of Time and his spelling of it with a capital "T." The examples from the text are:
Sanjaya the charioteer tells Yudhishtira that "life is passing and unstable. Time is an endless ocean, and where is there an island in it?" (Mahabharata, 235)
Vyasa tells Dhritarashtra not to grieve since he will do nothing to stop the war and "It will be...but the changes of Time, and nothing more" (Mahabharata, 251)
Drupada to Drona who has come to his old friend as a poor beggar: "I must have friends and enemies from among my equals. Time leaves nothing true forever" (Mahabharata, 38)
Duryodhana tries to get to Draupadi but Bhishma stands in his way: "Bhishma pierced Duryodhana with his grey eyes under his silver hair, and his hand fell on Duryodhana's shoulder with all the weight of Time" (Mahabharata, 100)
In describing the fatal dart, it is said: "to hold it was sweet as childhood remembered; to face it was bitter as Time" (Mahabharata, 289)
Before Karna's chariot wheel is caught, it is said: "Time invisibly told him: 'The Earth is devouring your wheel'" (Mahabharata, 291).
Sanjaya, after losing the heavenly sight, says to Dhritarashtra: "The whole world has been destroyed by Time" (Mahabharata, 327)
In his response to Krishna, Yudhishtira says: "I will go on, as Time run always forward and never back@ (Mahabharata, 360)
In the insert before chapter 19: "When
there is a stain, and/nothing will remove it-/Time will take it away" (Mahabharata,
Earth is strewn over with brightHere we have the earth bound by the rhythm of time, personified as a dancing girl, and the chaos of her appearance is an illusion. The description of the illusion as something done in play reduces its significance in the larger scheme, specifically the godlike, or eternal, nature of all things. Therefore, time the endless rhythm is insignificant in what may be called the reality of eternal existence.
weapons and red with blood. She
resembles a dark dancing girl
dressed in crimson, fallen, confused
/with wine, her golden bells and
silver ornaments all deranged...
But it is illusion. It is done in
Who has been slain?
Who has done murder here?
This rhythm, or rita, also connects time to the idea of destiny, a fourth way in which Buck treats time. In other words, the inevitability of time and the ability to connect past events to present events implies that future events are also solid and unchanging. Duryodhana says to his father when Dhristadyumna comes to request that the Pandavas be given their birthright: "What do we need with the Pandavas? If the whole world is against you, you will keep your kingdom if that is your destiny, although you exert yourself only to breathe air! If you are destined to lose a throne - do what you will, with all your strength, you shall fall" (Mahabharata, 75). Duryodhana is saying that the wheel will continue to turn despite your best efforts to try and thwart it. This inevitability of events is also why Yudhishtira's loss at the dice game (Mahabharata, 97) and his victory in the question and answer game with Dharma (Mahabharata, 198) contain the rhythm that they do. It is through the repeated phrases and the constant form of question and answer that they rhetorically establish the concept of fate. The unbreakable pattern connotes an eternal rhythm, and also a perspective from which the world is seen as being made up of destined events.
Destiny implies that events are meant to
occur, and this also carries with it the idea that there is an appropriate
time for these events to occur. This is the fifth way in which Buck treats
time in his Mahabharata. Here, Buck shows concern both for establishing
the moment in which an event occurs and having the characters realize that
there is both an appropriate and an inappropriate time for something to
be done. Following is a list of examples from the text:
After the Mantra of Narayana is used by Aswatthaman, it is said that: "When the new moon hung low in the sky...when the Pandavas were pulling arrows...when their physicians were giving them drugs..Karna walked into Arjuna's tent" (Mahabharata, 285).
Krishna sets out for Hastinapura "in the time of year after the rains, in the season of dew, when the sunlight is mild and the air is clear" (Mahabharata, 239). When he arrives he tells Vidura: "I must go to the palace. It is time" (Mahabharata, 241)
Krishna asks Arjuna if he should kill Duryodhana and Arjuna says: "It's not time and it's not your affair" (Mahabharata, 106)
Drona tells the Kuru princes: "The time has come for you to pay me for your lessons" (Mahabharata, 41)
After stealing Draupadi, Jayadratha is told by Yudhishtira that they will not fight him but to "be patient, the time will come" (Mahabharata, 178)
Sauti describes the serpent sacrifice by saying that "There, at the proper time, Brahmanas dressed all in black set afire a great stack of buttered wood" (Mahabharata, 12)
The seventh and final way Buck treats time is seen in the significance given to spans of time in the text. Several examples follow:
Insert before chapter 2: "Now the wonderful world is born,/In an instant it dies,/In a breath it is renewed.//From the slowness of our eye/And the quickness of God's hand/We believe in the world" (Mahabharata, 25)
Gandhari is pregnant for two years, the babies must be in jars for two more years (Mahabharata, 33)
Drona sends the students to the river to get water, and Aswatthaman comes back first "and in the time before the others got back he taught his son in secret" (Mahabharata, 39)
The Pandavas' house is to be burnt in 14 days. On the thirteenth day they begin preparing for their escape (Mahabharata, 53)
Vaisampayana to Janamejaya: :Every day
in heaven is a year on Earth" (Mahabharata, 141)
Urvasi curses Arjuna to be scorned as a eunuch for a year (Mahabharata, 141)
When Duryodhana tries to capture Krishna, Krishna says: "From the time you would have dishonored Draupadi until now - that is all the time of your life" (Mahabharata, 244)
If the spell of destruction had been cast by Arjuna or Aswatthaman, the earth would have been a desert for seven thousand years (Mahabharata, 338)
That we are products of a past filled with
mistakes and successes can only lead to the further conclusion that each
life choice we make lays the foundation for our future happiness and unhappiness.
Some see time as a trap, an unbreakable circle containing the past, the
present, and the future. An escape from this trap is the belief in immortality,
or an existence extending into an unlimited future. What I have attempted
to do in this paper is show the cohesion of Buck's treatment of time, which
becomes most evident by viewing multiple examples side by side. This is
by no means an exhaustive analysis of time in Hindu philosophy, but by
considering Buck's text in the context of that philosophy as I have, it
becomes clear that it is possible to make that vast amount of knowledge
accessible to an audience who may expect little more than a romantic history.
Buck, William. Mahabharata. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1973.
1) Organ, Troy W. AThe Hindu Motif.@ Hinduism: Its Historical Development. Woodbury: Barron=s Educational Series,
2) Waterstone, Richard. AIndia: Concepts
of Time.@ WWW page. URL http://pathfinder.com/@@xxAIUQcASaX4vvex/twep/Little_Brown/living/india/india_time1.html.
7 January 1997.