From Back to Godhead
What do the Bhagavatam and Srila Prabhupada have to say about these universal concepts?
At the beginning of his first book, Easy Journey to Other Planets, Srila Prabhupada writes, “Dedicated to the scientists of the world.” Perhaps it was Lord Krishna’s special plan that Srila Prabhupada’s first book be related to science, and space in particular. By this dedication, Srila Prabhupada is inviting scientists and any inquisitive thoughtful people to explore the science in the Vedic literature.
One of Srila Prabhupada’s outstanding contributions to humanity was to translate the Srimad-Bhagavatam from Sanskrit into English, with elaborate commentary, or “Purports.” The topic of space and time has received intense research in modern science, especially by Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. This article will discuss the Bhagavatam’s ideas on the relation between time and space, the eternal cyclic nature of time, relative time measurements, and related topics. We will also consider Newton’s and Einstein’s ideas about absolute space and time and where the Bhagavatam stands in relation to these concepts. We will explore some conclusions of modern cosmology and the relevance of the Bhagavatam to them. Finally, we will explore some metaphysical and philosophical aspects of time and space as given in Vedic scriptures.
The Correlation of Space and Time in the Bhagavatam
In his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.11.4, Srila Prabhupada writes, “Time and space are two correlative terms. Time is measured in terms of its covering a certain space of atoms.” This statement is significant as it verifies the correlation between time and space. According to the Bhagavatam, the material world comprises of combination of innumerable atoms, or paramanus. The invisible and indivisible paramanu is the ultimate material particle. Any material form is a conglomeration of such atoms. Srila Prabhupada continues in the purport, “Standard time is calculated in terms of the movement of the sun. The time covered by the sun in passing over an atom is calculated as atomic time.“ At the paramanu scale, the passing over of the sun may be understood as the passing of sunshine over an atom occupying a distinct position in space. In essence, the Bhagavatam is correlating time, matter, space, and sunlight. This correlation should ring a bell for someone who has pondered over Einstein’s theory of relativity, which also interrelates space and time, although not in the same sense as the Bhagavatam does.
The Eternal Cyclic Process
Continuing on from atomic time, the Bhagavatam gradually scales up the time divisions – till the stupendous lifetime of Brahma (311.04 trillion years). He is the secondary creator (after Vishnu) and is in charge of a particular universe. Srimad-Bhagavatam (6.17.37) says there are innumerable universes. Thus there are innumerable Brahmas, and, like the universe, they manifest and dissolve with every breath of Maha-Vishnu. Eternally the process repeats cyclically, and hence we cannot ascertain a particular beginning time or an end time. Srila Prabhupada writes, “No one knows where time began and where it ends.” (Bhagavatam 3.10.11, Purport) The current universe was preceded by an infinite number of universes and will be followed by an infinite number. This cyclic scheme of creation and dissolution with vast time scales has impressed many modern scientists. Distinguished astronomer Carl Sagan said, “Vedic cosmology is the only one in which the time scales correspond to those of modern scientific cosmology.“ Nobel laureate Count Maurice Maeterlinck wrote of “a Cosmogony which no European conception has ever surpassed.”
Thus we see in the Bhagavatam the correlation between space and time and the systematic development of time from the minute atomic level to the macro level of Brahma’s life. The Bhagavatam also explains that Brahma perceives time on his planet differently than the people on earth.
Relative Time Measurements on Different Planets
Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.13.40, “On different planets, the calculation of time is different. To give an example, a man-made satellite may orbit the earth in an hour and twenty-five minutes and thus complete one full day, although a day ordinarily takes twenty-four hours for those living on earth.” This quotation is taken from the incident where Brahma played mischief with Lord Krishna. Brahma resides in a planetary system called Brahmaloka, which is very far from earth. The time scale on his planet is so huge that one moment there is equal to one year on earth. Once, Brahma stole Lord Krishna’s cowherd friends and their calves from Vrindavan (on earth) and returned to earth within a moment. Meanwhile a whole year had passed on earth. In discussing the incident, Srila Prabhupada describes different times on different planets. Elsewhere in the Bhagavatam (9.3.28–32), we hear of King Kakudmi’s visit to Brahmaloka with his daughter, Revati. Kakudmi was seeking a suitable bridegroom for her and wanted to consult Brahma. When Kakudmi arrived there, Lord Brahma was hearing performances by Gandharvas, celestial musicians. After the performance ended, Kakudmi submitted his desire. Brahma laughed and told him that 27 chatur-yugas (116.64 million years) had elapsed on earth and all those potential sons-in-law he was considering had died long ago.
These incredible incidents relate somewhat to the ideas of time dilation in Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Einstein and Newton on Space and Time
Newton considered that the universe had existed forever in an unchanging state – a static universe. He considered time and space separate and independent and believed in absolute space and time. According to him, absolute time meant that one could distinctly measure the interval of time between two events and this time would be the same no matter who measured it. About absolute space, he wrote, “In its own nature, without regard to anything external, [it] remains always similar and immovable.“ Einstein’s concepts differ from that of Newton, who said that space and time are not separate entities but a single four-dimensional (length, breadth, height, time) continuum called space-time. This space-time will curve or bend around any massive planets or black holes, giving rise to gravity. Thus space and time are not like a static stage where the drama of matter takes place.
Together, space and time, as a single space-time, act on matter and also get acted upon. The curvature of the space-time continuum can be significantly different for different observers, as will the corresponding time measurements. Technically this is called time dilation. Thus in Einstein’s theory of general relativity, time (or space) is relative and not absolute. Einstein’s theory is widely regarded as a paradigm shift from Newton’s ideas of absolute space and time. In Einstein’s theory, however, the omnipresence, universality, and nondiscriminating nature of space-time and gravity acquire a sort of absolute nature, although the theory focuses on relativity. This has led to philosophical discussions among scientists. Meanwhile, supporters of Newton claim that his work has not been sufficiently understood and his idea of absolute space cannot be discarded. So there is still some inconclusiveness among scientists despite centuries of deliberations. The Bhagavatam also conceives of absolute and relative time and space. Open-minded readers can seriously consider this alternative explanation.
Absolute and Relative Time in the Bhagavatam
The two incidents involving Brahma mentioned from the Bhagavatam give an idea of time being measured differently on different planets that somewhat resembles Einstein’s idea of time dilation. Additionally, the Bhagavatam describes absolute time, but the description differs from Newton’s explanation. Explaining absolute time in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.10.10, Srila Prabhupada writes, “Metaphysically, time is distinguished as absolute and real. Absolute time is continuous and is unaffected by the speed or slowness of material things. Time is astronomically and mathematically calculated in relation to the speed, change and life of a particular object. Factually, however, time has nothing to do with the relativities of things; rather, everything is shaped and calculated in terms of the facility offered by time.” Taking this quotation together with the two incidents of the Bhagavatam mentioned earlier, we can infer that there is an absolute time but it is perceived differently on different planets, thereby giving rise to relative time measurements. The Bhagavatam says that time is an impersonal feature of Lord Krishna. Since Srila Prabhupada says, “Krishna is the source of all relative truths [Bhagavatam 10.2.26, Purport],” we can conclude that Krishna is the absolute reference for all relative times.
Absolute and Relative Space in the Bhagavatam
As for space, the Bhagavatam and the Brahma-samhita categorize it into two types. What we generally consider space is called nabha in Sanskrit, and it is the mundane space (or sky) of the material world. It manifests in each universe during the lifetime of a particular Brahma. Since there are innumerable universes and innumerable Brahmas, there are innumerable nabhas. These material nabhas are the domain of matter.
Beyond the realm of material spaces is the spiritual sky. It is called the sanatana (eternal) sky. It is absolute, and any relativity arises only in the material sky. In his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.5.19, Srila Prabhupada writes, “The spiritual world is called absolute.” Speaking about the material sky, he said, “Material world means relative world.“ (Lecture, Bombay, November 13, 1974) The spiritual space is the absolute space, and the material space, or nabha, is the relative space. Thus, like time, even space is both absolute and relative.
Modern Cosmology and the Relevance of the Bhagavatam
Einstein’s theory proved to be a major milestone in modern cosmology, leading to the famous Big Bang theory. Scientists theorize that our universe is expanding and must have had a beginning some fourteen billion years ago from a point – known as a singularity – of infinite density, temperature, and space-time curvature. Scientists feel that such extreme conditions could allow for unifying Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum physics, and the mystery of the universe could be unraveled. The attempts at unification, although a terra incognita, have resulted in two prominent theories: string theory and quantum-cosmology theory. Scientists working on string theory (the most prominent version being M theory) are hypothesizing the existence of multiverses with multidimensions rather than a single universe. The theory of quantum cosmology extends Einstein’s space-time past the Big Bang to a pre-Big Bang universe with a “quantum bridge” in between. Although this sounds complicated, in simple terms the theories are basically saying that many universes exist simultaneously, they come and go, and this process goes on forever.
The Bhagavatam stated the same thing long ago, with much additional information and scientifically sound principles, such as the interrelatedness of space and time, cosmic events ranging over billions of years, and different time measurements on different planets. These points should evoke interest in any inquisitive person to take up the study of the Bhagavatam.
Further, science continues to research the transformation of energy into matter, an idea present in the Bhagavatam from a larger perspective. There we see that the entire material manifestation (matter) is in fact a transformation of Krishna’s external energy, called pradhana. The Bhagavatam associates every detailed stage of the transformation of matter with the corresponding sensory experiences by living entities. For example, when air is manifested, it gets associated with touch, and when water is manifested, it gets associated with taste, and so on. This description hints that whatever we think of as reality in the material realm is strongly limited by material sense perception.
The Bhagavatam invites us to go higher, up to the spiritual realm, for a complete picture of reality. Modern science, in its study of space and time, limits itself to the domain of matter. The Bhagavatam takes both material and spiritual things into account in its grand narrative. So it would be difficult to expect science to reach the exact conclusions of the Bhagavatam unless science acknowledges spirit, or consciousness, and admits it into its framework. This may take time. Meanwhile the interested reader is requested to open-mindedly undertake an in-depth study of Srimad-Bhagavatam, along with Srila Prabhupada’s elaborate purports.
The Final Purpose
In the end, the grand question would be “What is the purpose behind all this cosmic drama?” Modern science is mute on this most important question of purpose, but the Bhagavatam has the answer: Each of us is a spirit soul, part of Krishna, but we are now in the wrong place – the material realm, limited by space and time. In the Bhagavad-gita (15.6) Lord Krishna invites all of us to join Him in the absolute sanatana sky, specifically His abode, known as Goloka Vrindavana. The Bhagavatam informs us of infinite such spiritual planets, known as Vaikuntha planets. The spiritual universes are beyond the limitations of material space and time. There is no past and future but only the pure and immutable present time. Here in the material universe, we are tightly conditioned to think of past, present, and future times, whereas in the spiritual world there is only the present. The ultimate goal of the Vedic literature is to take us from this temporary material existence limited by space and time to the spiritual realm, where we live our spiritual existence eternally, alongside Lord Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.