Time and the Mahabharata
An analysis of the conception of time in William Buck's Mahabharata
 (c) Maurice G. London


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,
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).
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.

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:

Sauti talking to Saunaka: "Long ago, when the sea was milk, Narayana said to the gods of heaven. >Churn the ocean, and she will yield amrita, the nectar of immortality" (Mahabharata, 9)

amrita is called the essence of life (Mahabharata, 10)

From the insert before chapter 8 "Then the Universe is water; water/without end or beginning" (Mahabharata 165) Krishna to Arjuna after Draupadi is born: "Listen - since long ago I have known you. Those lives I remember, but you do not. But we must go now, so no one will find you here" (Mahabharata, 69)

Krishna to Arjuna by the ocean: "Nara, this is how we meet - by the water that was milk. Welcome to you" (Mahabharata, 77)

What Buck and the Mahabharata imply through these examples is that the notion of immortality is connected to that of rebirth. Amrita (the heavenly liquid), or immortality, is the essence of life, and is therefore connected to Hindu ideas of the soul, or the jiva. The jiva is both life force existing in all things and the immortal force which transcends each individual incarnation. Therefore, it is significant that Arjuna and Krishna, two incarnations of the same jiva, have their meeting by the water that was milk.

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 histories
(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.
Thus, 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.

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:

Near the beginning of the text, Sauti says: "The changes of the moon make the ocean rise and fall with the slow rhythms of Time. Wherever land ends, there the sea dances with the uplifted hands of his waves - wide as space, vast as time" (Mahabharata, 10)

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)

Yudhishtira says to Krishna, "The world is unreal and has no end, and Time is running his course" (Mahabharata, 353). Krishna tells Yudhishtira: "it is by Time that lakes grow flowers and the forest blooms, by Time the nights become dark or lighted" (Mahabharata, 359)

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, 387)

These examples bear out what I said earlier regarding the relentless and bitter nature of time as seen by some characters in the text. Time is often shown to lead to events which the characters do not wish to occur, and the characters are forced to accept them. That the world is bound by the wheel of time also becomes apparent through these examples, but elsewhere the world is shown to be bound by illusion. For example, when Vyasa gives Sanjaya heavenly sight, the result is that "the last illusion left his quiet eyes" (Mahabharata, 251). What this implies is that without seeing and knowing everything at one time, we are seeing only illusion. There can be no absolute reality without heavenly sight, only that which we create within our own minds. Elsewhere, Yudhishtira says to Krishna, "The world is unreal and has no end, and Time is running his course" (Mahabharata, 353). The insert before chapter 13 reads:
Earth is strewn over with bright
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?
Here 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.

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:

Bhishma tells Duryodhana: "the thirteenth year was full when first you heard the cry of Devadatta and the twang of Gandiva bow" (Mahabharata, 227)

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)

Buck shows us by having these passages in his text that destiny and time are connected, and that it is possible to have the wisdom to know when something must be done. An implication of this is that something of the future must be in the present if it is possible for one to know that the right time will be in the future and not in the present. This complicated idea is capable of being understood best by a solid presentation of the Hindu beliefs concerning time, and that is what Buck's Mahabharata is. Buck shows in his text that despite the illusionary nature of the world, the wheel of time moves onward, and at certain points events occur which will happen no matter how much anyone wishes they would not.

The seventh and final way Buck treats time is seen in the significance given to spans of time in the text. Several examples follow:

"Vyasa came at his mother's call and fathered three sons. For one change of the moon he lived with Ambika, then for a month with Ambalika, then after with one of Satyavati's maidservants" (Mahabharata, 23)

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)

The Pandavas are in the forest for twelve years before they go into hiding in the thirteenth year

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)

"Death wandered the Earth, taking no life for one hundred trillion, two hundred seventy-seven billion and eight thousand years. Then Brahma came to her and said, 'Death I have not seen you for a moment'" (Mahabharata, 319)

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)

This concern for spans of time is seen in the Hindu philosophy about kappas and yugas. There is a scientific aspect to these terms which we will not delve into here, yet it is clear that the orderly nature of any system requires that all elements be quantified. Buck shows in his Mahabharata that these cosmic quantifications are mirrored in the temporal and illusory world of man.

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.



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