Indian Emphases upon Transcendent Reality

Charles Ess, Professor of Philosophy, Drury College

[From Hajime Nakamura's The Notion of Time in India]

The persistent Indian conception of a transcendent reality as more important than the phenomenal world it underlies and sustains results in a kind of paralysis of the individual's sensitivity to time, if we understand "time" to mean the passage and flow of specific events in our experience. This paralysis manifests itself in a characteristic lack of time concepts which non-Indians regard as common sense. (Indian thought may show an intense preoccupation with other, more metaphysical senses of time; in the Vedic period time was seen as the fundamental principle of the universe, "Time, the steed, [who] runs with seven reins, thousand-eyed, ageless, rich in seed. The seers, thinking holy thoughts, mount him, all the worlds are his wheels.... With seven wheels does this Time ride, seven navels has he, immortality is his axle.... Time, the first god, now hastens onward"(12) But this is hardly the time in which human beings carry on their common concerns. )

Language, as usual, is where this lack of common-sense concepts is most clearly seen: the Indian people did not have a clear awareness of the discrimination of tense. Although in Sanskrit, as in Greek, there are five kinds of tenses, they are not sharply discriminated in meaning.(13) To indicate past time, the imperfect, perfect, past participle active, aorist and historical present are used almost indiscriminately, (14) and the frequency with which a given tense is used varies not according to meaning but according to historical period. The aorist is often used in the sixth century B.C., for instance, but in classical Sanskrit is no longer common. The discrimination between absolute past and relative past is not clearly made in the ancient Indian language.

In modern Hindustani as well, we find similar linguistic phenomena. The adverb kal means both "yesterday" and "tomorrow." Parson means "the day after tomorrow" as well as "the day before yesterday"; atarson means equally "three days ago" or "three days from now." The meaning of these terms can be determined only through context.

Since the lack of common-sense time concepts is built into the language of India, both ancient and modern, it is not surprising to find it manifested in Indian religion and historiography. The Buddha was born under a tree in the park at Lumbini, attained Enlightenment under a tree at Gaya, and entered Nirvana under a tree at Kusinagara. These three events, according to common-sense notions, must have taken place on different dates, yet they are all celebrated by Indians and South Asiatics on the same Wesak day in May. Indians have not exerted themselves to grasp the concept of time quantitatively, and have never written historical books with accurate dates. According to the Indian world view, the universe, world, and social order are eternal; personal life, however, is only one sample of a succession of lives existing repeatedly in limitless time. If one's life is conceived as infinitely repeated, it becomes meaningless. The idea of the transmigration of souls, the perpetual self-revolution of rebirth, has appeared only occasionally in the West, but in India it is a basic assumption of the common people as well as of philosophers. Passing phenomena, whether the events of the individual life or of more generalized history, have no real significance. It is natural enough that no importance is given to providing them with accurate dates.

[Postcolonial] [Indian Subcontinent] India OV

Last modified 15 December 2000