Follow by Email

Friday, February 22, 2013

Space and time in India

In the Western civilization, many of us (me included) are used to temporal explanations and temporal questions (one might say that this is a result of the Christian concept of a linear time, from creation to redemption). It is for this reason that we tend to think of time as the unavoidable framework and we are not at ease with Stephen Hawkins' or St. Augustine's claim that there used to be a "moment before time", which, by definition, does not have any temporal extension.
The situation is completely different in Classical, non-Buddhist India, where the concept of anāditva 'beginninglessness' frontally opposes the predominance of a linear time. In Mīmāṃsā, the idea that the world should have had a beginning and that it will have an end is completely weird. The world extends through time without stretching from a beginning to an end. In Grammar and Nirukta (see Kahrs 1998) one consistently encounters spatial explanations of phenomena that we would explain in temporal terms. For instance, the author of the Nirukta does not say that a certain term "comes from"/"derives from" (note the temporal metaphor at work) a certain root, nor does Patañjali speak of lopa as the "elision of a certain phoneme". Rather, spatial metaphors are used: a certain term is used at the place of another one, a lopa is the substitution of a certain phoneme with a zero-substitute.

Do you know of other examples from different contexts, in India and in the West?

On spatial vs. temporal explanations in Ritual and Mīmāṃsā speculation, see this post.


Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

I'm never had the sense that time is not linear in India. It's not a feature of Buddhist thought anyway. Beginninglessness doesn't preclude linearity - time still flows in one (and only one) direction (which is a feature of Hawkings writing) and a distinction is made between past, present and future (also grammatically). Before and after are also grammatical features of Sanskrit. Day follows day, year follows year, and aeon follows aeon. Time is a line rather than some other geometry. We sometimes say time is cyclic in India, but this is incorrect - it is not the same universe recreated, but a sequences of universes created and destroyed in turn.

I think what you are saying is something else - that time is infinite in both directions: forwards and back. Unbounded time is not necessarily non-linear.

And after all Sanskrit possesses the word ādi so it does not lack the concept of a beginning. It is also replete with cosmogonic myths which describe the beginning of the supposedly beginningless universe - I'm familiar with these in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad for example. So it seems to me that even the idea of beginninglessness is being overstated.

My sense of the beginning of the universe in Western (scientific) thought is that it is a consequence of observation - one can see all galaxies moving away from each other, and if we extrapolate backwards they must have been closer together in the past. Since mass bends space into curves, space must become increasingly curved as we go back in time. If we go back far enough then space-time becomes infinitely curved and occupies a dimensionless universe - a singularity.

Contemporary physicists are starting to voice many objections to the conclusions of the Big Bang theory (aka the Standard Model of Cosmology) and many have abandoned it completely precisely because of the singularity of space and time - a point at which neither space nor time have any meaning. The infinite curve of zero dimensions probably indicates an error in the theory, or an event or process yet to be observed. There is much serious and interesting discussion nowadays about how to avoid that zero and about what came before the universe.

And we now think that the universe will go expanding forever. The discovery that galaxies are actually accelerating away from each other was the key - this phenomenon is given the title "Dark Energy" because acceleration implies energy being applied, and no one can see what it is yet.

Thus the most up to date view is that the observable universe has no discernible beginning and will have no end. And thus it conflicts with Christianity at both ends.

I surprised Dr Kahrs some years ago by asking him a question about his book on the Nirukta. He was surprised to find that anyone had read it. :-)

Indeed "comes from" is a journey metaphor which involves notions of both space and time - traversing a space over time. The notion of substitution also implies temporality I'm afraid. One thing follows another - before it was x in that place, now it is y. If it were not temporal then all possible combinations of x and y would be superimposed. A stem cannot have two endings simultaneously. All processes are by nature temporal, even if we use spatial metaphors to describe them.

Best Wishes

elisa freschi said...

Hi Jayarava,
thanks for this. I emended a little bit my wording, since I added "Classical pre-Buddhist" before "India". The case of Buddhism is, in fact, different, since there is an historical founder and this changes a lot the feeling of time, which is given by that a direction. The world of Vedic sacrifice seems remote from that: one repeats the same sacrifices since a beginningless time. Note that the idea of the four ages (ending with the Kaliyuga) and of the cyclical destruction and recreation of the world is of Greek origin and has never been accepted in traditionalist circles (such as the ones I mentioned in the post) (Halbfass has also written about it).

The presence of the term ādi is not as significant as you might think, since in the schools I mentioned ādi is used in a spatial way, as the first part of a word, a sentence, etc. The fact that we re-interpret all these metaphors as temporal ones is significant about our way of thinking, not about the one of our object of study.

I liked your last note. Here is my answer: substitution (in Mīmāṃsā, Kalpasūtras, Grammar…) is conceived as if one had a chessboard before oneself. One could either have a bishop in, e.g., B9 or in C7, but this is not conceived as the sequential move of it from one to the other. It is rather the case that the presence of the bishop in B9 is conceptually equivalent to its presence in C7.

Anonymous said...

[and a distinction is made between past, present and future (also grammatically). Before and after are also grammatical features of Sanskrit.]

Well, but all languages are products of naive realism, and philosophers just have to make of them what they can. Anyway, even they lived in and believed in time, despite the talky-talk, and probably liked to listen to the Mahabharata and Ramayana after hours, some of 'em anyway.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks, Anonymous commentator,

I tend to think that we are all so much immersed in our experience of time and space that we cannot speak lucidly about it. The fact that there is time and that 'yesterday' is not the same as 'today' and 'tomorrow' does not mean that we should all agree about a linear vision of time. For instance, the ancient Hebrew ritual was a 'memorial', i.e., it re-created the same time it was celebrating. In other words, the idea was that just like space, also time can be traversed. I am *not* saying that this is the concept of space common in Vedic India (although the idea of sacrifice might have some elements in common), I am only trying to say that our contemporary mainstream approach to time and space is not the only possible one.

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

Yes, I suppose the idea of a founder does change things significantly. However Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad has several cosmogonic stories in which the universe is created. BU also suggests an endpoint in union with Brahman - though this is debatable if Brahman is timeless.

Which touches on an issue that fascinates me - Why did the endless cycles cease to satisfy the Indians? Why did escape from the orderly cycles between this world and the other world start to seem attractive. I hint at a Zoroastrian connection in my article on the Śākyas - i.e. the introduction of the idea of heaven and hell from Iran. The timing I propose would allow for influence on the authors of BU - and be appropriate to the Kosala-Videha region. Are you aware of other theories to explain this change?

I did not know of the Greek influence on world ages - fascinating! Do you have a reference for this?

I see what you mean by substitution and yes, clearly it is not temporal in this case.

elisa freschi said...

This is a very interesting comment, Jayarava. I also tend to think that the Iranic influence may have had a role in the concept of time within Buddhism (I would think of Maitreya, the "future Buddha"). But I am not sure that the standard non-Iranian concept was that of endless cycles. The Mīmāṃsā speaks of endless presence, with no creations and destructions.

The Greek influence is quite certain, as the Greek one on the days of the week and on the connections of gods and planets. I will send you a reference as soon as I am back in a library (sorry!).


In Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣya (on v.i.119) we find a passage which concludes as: anvarthaṃ khalvapi nirvacanaṃ guṇasaṃdrāvo dravyam iti. Surendranath Dasgupta translates this in his “Natural Science of the Ancient Hindus” (published by Indian Council of Philosophical Research, New Delhi) as follows: “A dravya is so called because the qualities assemble (from the root dru, ‘to flow to’) in it.” (p. 4) Note that in Dasgupta’s translation it is not said that qualities ‘inhere’ in dravya, rather qualities ‘assemble’ in it, which is consistent with the idea inhered in the root dru, ‘to flow to’. Thus qualities are come in to and go out from dravyas, in Patañjali’s view. The idea is explicated in the immediately preceding line: atha vā yasya guṇāntareṣu api prādurbhavatsu tattva na vihanyate tad dravyam. kiṃ punaḥ tattvam? tadbhāvas tattvam. tad yathā āmalakādīnāṃ phalānāṃ raktādayaḥ pītādayaś ca guṇāḥ prādurbhavanti, āmalakaṃ vadaram ityeva bhavati. Dasgupta translates: “Rather, a thing is that the essence of which is not changed in spite of the change of its qualities. If asked ‘What is this essence?’, we say that it is the being of the thing. A plum or an āmalaka fruit is sometimes yellow and sometimes red; but it is all the while a plum or an āmalaka and the identity is never changed with the acquisition of new qualities.” (ibid.) Thus with reference to dravya and guṇa, the idea of an [apparently] unchanging space and [apparently] changing space can be respectively inferred. Again the ideas of change and constancy are dependent upon time. Basing our interpretation on this, it may be said that ideas of changing (= perceptible) and constant (= imperceptible = ever-flowing) time underlie the ideas of changing space and unchanging space respectively. This again reminds us of the Naiyāyika notion of kāla or time which is the substratum of the universe (= space), classified as mahākāla and khaṇḍakāla (it is split up into segments by limiting adjuncts): sa ca kālaḥ mahākālarūpaḥ, khaṇḍakālarūpaśca [Navyanyāyabhāṣāpradīpa of Maheśacandra Nyāyaratna, translated by Ujjwala Jha, p. 55, Calcutta: Asiatic Society; also cf. Bhāṣāpariccheda of Viśvanātha Nyāyapañcānana, verses 45-46 and the auto-commentary Siddhāntamuktāvalī thereon, Swāmī Mādhavānanda’s translation, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama].

elisa freschi said...

Thank you for these learned references and for joining the discussion, Sudipta.
Concerning Patañjali, I think he is also referring to space and not time: qualities are not said to disappear, they are said to be aggregated (saṃdru-) in a substance and to be liable to substitutions through others. I would understand saṃdru- just as "being collected together", with no temporal connotation. As with Jayarava, you seem to imply that substitution takes time, but this does not seem to be the point for Patañjali who does NOT say, e.g., "fruit are first green and then yellow" but rather "the colour yellow may substitute the colour red in a fruit".
Concerning time as the substrate of space, I would be grateful if you could find an explicit reference for this. I only found references to time and space as being vibhū, but, so to say, the one along the other.


Dear Elisa,

On time being the substratum of the universe:

The 45th verse of Bhāṣāpariccheda reads as follows:

इन्द्रियं तु भवेच्छ्रोत्रमेकः सन्नप्युपाधितः।
जन्यानां जनकः कालो जगतामाश्रयो मतः॥४५॥

On this the auto-commentary, Siddhāntamuktāvalī says:

“कालं निरूपयति - जन्यानामिति। तत्र प्रमाणं दर्शयितुमाह - जगतामाश्रय इति। तथाहि इदानीं घट इत्यादिप्रतीतिः सूर्यपरिस्पन्दादिकं यदा विषयीकरोति तदा सूर्यपरिस्पन्दादिना घटादेः सम्बन्धो वाच्यः। स च सम्बन्धः संयोगादिर्न सम्भवति इति काल एव तत्सम्बन्धघटकः कल्प्यते। इत्थञ्च तस्याश्रयत्वमेव सम्यक्।”

This is further explained by Pt. Pañcānana Śāstrī Tarkavedāntatīrtha in his Sanskrit commentary, Muktāvalīsaṃgraha, as follows:

“मूले जन्यानां जनक इति। कार्यमात्रं प्रति निमित्तकारणमित्यर्थः। तेन स्वसमवेतकार्यं प्रति तस्य समवायिकारणत्वेऽपि न क्षतिः। ननु कार्यमात्रं प्रति कालस्य कारणत्वं कुत इति चेत्। अद्य घटो भविष्यति, श्वः पटो भविता इत्यादिप्रतीतेस्-तत्तत्-कार्योत्पत्त्यधिकरणत्वेन व्यवहारविषयस्य तस्य कालस्य तत्तदुत्पतिहेतुत्वात्, तदुत्पत्तिहेतुत्वस्य तद्धेतुत्वव्याप्यत्वात्। एवञ्च तत्तत्कार्यविशेषं प्रति तत्तत्कालविशेषस्य हेतुत्वे सिद्धे यद्विशेषयोरिति व्याप्त्या कार्यमात्रे कालस्य हेतुतासिद्धिः। न चैवामात्माप्यधिकरणतया सर्वोत्पत्तिनिमित्तं स्यादिति वाच्यम्। अधिकरणतया तस्येष्टत्वात्। यथा हि दिक्कालोपाध्यधिकरणा सर्वोत्पत्तिः, नैवमात्मोपाधि-शरीराधिकरणेति विशेषः। जगतामाश्रय इति। कालः सर्ववानिति प्रतीत्या सर्वाधिकरणत्वेन जगदाश्रयसिद्धिरिति भावः। ननु प्रमाणान्तरेण कालस्य सिद्धौ तस्य जगदाश्रयत्वं स्यात्, न च तस्य सिद्धिः, प्रमाणाभावादित्याशङ्कायां तत्र प्रमाणं दर्शयितुमाह - तथा हीति। इदानीमिति। इदानीमिति प्रतीतौ कालविशेषो विषयो भवति। अत एवाभिलाप इदानीमिति। न चैतस्य कालान्यविषयकत्वं युक्तं, वैयाकरणैः कालवाचकादिदमादिशब्दाद् दा-दानीमादि-प्रत्ययविधानात्। अत एवोक्तं बालमनोरमायाम् – इदमः सप्तम्यन्तात् कालवाचिनः स्वार्थे दानीमिति च प्रत्ययः स्यादिति। अन्यथा “सर्वैकान्य-किं-यत्तदः काले दादानीञ्चे”ति सूत्राद्विरोधापत्तेः। तथा चेदानीमित्यादिप्रतीत्या कालस्य सिद्धौ तस्य जगदाश्रयत्वसिद्धिरिति भावः। यदि तु नीरूपस्य कालस्य प्रतीतिविषयत्वं नाङ्गीक्रियते, तदापि कालस्य नासिद्धिरित्याह – सूर्यपरिस्पन्दनादिकमिति। आदिना चन्द्रपरिस्पन्दनादेः परिग्रहः। तथा चेदानीं घट इत्यादि-प्रतीतिर्यदा सूर्यपरिस्पन्दनमेव विषयीकरोति, न कालम्। तदापि तत्सम्बन्धघटकतया कालस्य सिद्धिः। तथा हि – इदानीं घट इत्यादि-प्रतीतिविदं-प्रतीतिविषयस्य सूर्यपरिस्पन्दस्य घटादिना सम्बन्धो न संयोगः, द्रव्ययोरेव संयोग इति नियमात्। नापि समवायः, सूर्यनिष्ठक्रियाया घटे समवायासम्भवात्। अपि तु स्वाश्रय-संयोगि-संयोगरूपो वक्तव्यः। गुणादौ तु स्वसमवायि-संयुक्त-संयोगि-समवेतत्वरूपः। तथा च स्वं सूर्यपरिस्पन्दः, तस्याश्रयः सूर्यः, तत्संयोगी कालः, तत्संयोगो घटे इति तत्सम्बन्धघटकतया कालः सिध्यति। न चाकाशादिकमेव तत्सम्बन्धघटकमास्तामिति वाच्यम्। आकाशदिगात्मनां विनिगमनाविरहेण सम्बन्धघटकत्वायोगादतिरिक्तैककालस्य सम्बन्धघटकत्व-कल्पनात्। इत्थञ्च अतिरिक्त कालसिद्धौ च। सम्यगिति। कालः सर्ववानिति प्रतीतेरतिरिक्तकालविषयकत्वस्योचितत्वादिति भावः॥४५॥ (pp. 201-3)

elisa freschi said...

@Jayarava, I am afraid I deleted by mistake a comment of you which run as follows:

re the lack of 'time' you might find this blog post ( interesting - and the article it is referencing.

It suggests, amongst other things, that the way we see time is far from universal (your point). And that Australian Aboriginal languages do not have a word for time - they don't see the world in terms of past, present and future.

All this is reminiscent of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which is currently have a revival on some blogs I read.

elisa freschi said...

@My answer to Jayarava's lost comment:

Thanks for the interesting reference. From the point of view of language theory, I tend to adverse the (popular version of the) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, since I tend to think of language as a softer tool (you might have read my criticism of Angot's argument that Indian authors lacked the sense of possession because there is no verb "to have" in Sanskrit and so on in my review of his L'art de penser). In case of Austrialian aborigenes, I am very much inclined to think that they do have a sense of the passing of time, but that they probably categorize it in a different way and express it through linguistic tools we would not think of (the lack of the word "time" does not mean anything if, for instance, there is an ad hoc suffix to be used). But you are right, the point is interesting and seems to support my idea about the non-univocity of the concept of time.


I forgot to mention that in the view of Raghunātha Śiromaṇi, direction and time are not separate categories, nor are they all-pervasive. They are subservient to Īśvara, who is the real cause of the universe. Thus he says:

"दिक्कालौ नेश्वरादतिरिच्येते मानाभावात्। तत्तन्निमित्तविशेषसमवधानवशादीश्वरादेव तत्तत्कार्यविशेषाणामुपपत्तेः। परेषामेकैकस्माद्दिगादेरिव विलक्षणानां प्राच्यादिव्यवहाराणामिति।" (Padārthatattvanirūpaṇam, p. 3, Pt. Madhusūdana Nyāyācārya’s edition, Calcutta: Sanskrit College, 1976)

Licenza Creative Commons
Quest' opera è distribuita con licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 2.5 Italia.