Our day-to-day experience of time passing can be highly non-linear and subjective, as we move from giving rapid presentations to enjoying lazy Sunday afternoons. Science too has studied how our brains have the ability to slow down and speed up our perception of time. In this way, our lived experience of the flow of time diverges sharply from the scientific description of this experience. Although our ability to measure and monitor time and our habit of doing so has only increased in the modern world, nevertheless for both modern and ancient people, time and its passage seem to be an abiding preoccupation and an irresolvable mystery. Indeed, stories of time travel or science fiction stories that range across aeons or dimensions of time in unexpected ways have a unique ability to capture our imagination.
Martin Heidegger was one thinker who grappled most deeply with the question of the meaning of time. Heidegger contrasted our lived experience of time with the even flow of time measured by clocks, writing that –
“Clock time cannot, in short, account for the temporal structure of human experience in general. … Only lived time assigns final significance to world time, and it remains philosophically prior to it. Through the artificially imposed priority of world time in the public sphere, lived time’s real priority has been obscured or forgotten.”[Martin Heidegger – Wilhelm Dilthey’s research and the current struggle for a historical worldview]
Indeed, lacking a single reductionist conception of time, ancient thinkers had a different set of concepts for thinking about time that was perhaps richer and more profuse than our single, unified modern understanding. Thus, in the case of Old English alone, Prof. Olga Chupryna notes –
“In Old English time per se was denoted by sǣl, mǣl, þrāg, hwīl, fæc, fyrst, tīd, tīma,stund, byre. Within the framework of mythological thinking these words were vehicles for various ideas of time; time was concrete in the sense that it was understood in close relationship with events and subjects acting in a specific time environment.”[Old English sǣl “TIME”: Metaphor and Metonymy in Word and Text; Prof. Olga Chupryna]
Among such concrete ideas, we can understand that time is closely connected with the seasons and other such cyclical patterns. Conceived as a force conducive to the ripening of crops, time is something that may be favourable to us. The basic idea of a propitious idea to act may also have originated in farming, where it is critical to determine the best time to sow and harvest a crop. Thus Prof. Olga Chupryna notes a suggestion that the time term ‘sǣl’ may be connected with OE sāwan ‘to sow’ and similar Germanic terms, writing –
“Within the framework of these etymological speculations the following chain of semantic shifts seems plausible: seed/sowing → time of sowing → time good for sowing → time good for some farming activity/season, period of time → time good for something/chance, occasion → good time → time of joy/happiness → happiness.”[Old English sǣl “TIME”: Metaphor and Metonymy in Word and Text; Prof. Olga Chupryna]
Building on this idea, moments in time also offers the possibility of new adventures and new opportunities, and for taking action at the right time, as reflected in sayings such as ‘strike while the iron is hot’ or ‘carpe diem’. Likewise, the opening to the Raghuvaṃśa enumerates the qualities of a good king, including “being alert to the right time” (yathākālaprabodhin).
This experience of certain times as of being momentous significance or of great importance as the right moment to take action is also captured in the Ancient Greek concept of kairos –
“Kairos (Ancient Greek: καιρός) is an Ancient Greek word meaning the right, critical, or opportune moment … In the literature of the classical period, writers and orators used kairos to specify moments when the opportune action was made, often through metaphors involving archery and one’s ability to aim and fire at the exact right time on-target.”[Wikipedia – ‘Kairos’]
This Greek conception of time appears in the Christian Bible as the time or moment of time for divine action. Thus in the Gospel of Mark, we read about the critical moment which is transformative for the fishermen who will in that moment give us their previous lives to become disciples of Jesus as follows –
“Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time [kairos] is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.”[Gospel of Mark Chapter 1 Verses 14-18; KJV]
By contrast with this favourable time, however, the passage of time often gives rise to unwelcome change and disruption, even causing psychological turmoil and social disorder. Time is also a force of steady ageing and decay of all things, even leading to sickness and death. This gives rise to the idea of time or destiny as something monstrous, as is depicted in the form of fortune or fate in the medieval Latin poem ‘O Fortuna’ –
Inhuman and hollow fate, you turning wheel, causing bad things; well wishes are in vain; everything can be brought down.[from ‘O Fortuna’; my own translation]
The same idea of time as source of awe and horror is also present in the Hindu deity Kālī, connected with the Sanskrit time term kāla, and seen in the form of Bhadrakālī in the image above. This perhaps represents the way in which, as egotistic and self-willed individuals, we maybe psychologically crushed by the depredations of time. Regarding this aspect of Kālī, Philip Rawson explains –
“The loving Goddess of Creation has another face. As she brings man into time and his world, she also removes him from it. So she is his destroyer as well. All those things which cripple and kill – disease, famine, violence and war – are an inevitable part of her activity, seen from the viewpoint of man as victim. … She may be hideous, but she must be no less loved.”[Tantra: The Indian Cult of Ecstasy, pp.17]
As human beings, our thinking is naturally grounded in our concrete reality and it takes greater mental effort to grasp more abstract concepts. Time is one such concept which profound thinkers in diverse fields have grappled with and struggle to articulate. Yet for all of us, our intuitive or reflective notions of time are the key to how we think and act at every moment. By engaging with the thought-streams of ancient authors, we may broaden and diversify our range of mental resources for how we understand time, and thus open up a broader range of possibilities for how we act in the world. We may end with the following reflection on time and fate from the Mahābhārata –
“So don’t grieve for what must happen.[Mahābhārata Book 1 Chapter 1 verses 186-190; my own translation]
What wisdom can hold back fate in any way?
Nothing can turn back the path ordained by destiny.
This whole world of being and no-being, pleasure and suffering, is based in time.
Time ripens beings; time takes away living creatures;
Time consumes living creatures and then time extinguishes them.
Time changes all things in the world, good and bad.
Time assembles all living creatures and then lets them go.
Time moves constantly, unchecked, in all beings.
Knowing that past and future states and all that happens now
Are fixed by Time, don’t lose your senses.”