The Theory of Time: In the perspective of Sri Aurobindo

The theory of time is a necessary concept in all traditions, whether Indian or Western. Without Time the existence of all worldly things are impossible. All of us are aware of three district phrases of Time – Past, Present & Future which are essential for the existence of anyone. So, Time is that which can not be ignored, however it seems quite difficult to discuss its nature in brief.

What is the meaning of Time? The etymological root of the term ‘kāla’ is  kal i.e. ‘to count’. In this sense, kāla signifies that object which counts the age of all. But the root  kal also signifies ‘to devour’. Hence, kāla also means the object that can bring death. Perhaps that is the reason why we call Shiva, the God who destroys the world, as Mahākāla.

In Indian tradition, several Vedas, Puranas along with Mahabharata discusses about the nature of Time. In Atharva Veda time is the originator & controller of all as well as the main cause behind the origination, maintenance & destruction of the entire world. Whereas in the philosophy of Kashmiri Saivism time is considered as the power of the Absolute. In the Puranas one finds the notion of four different Yugas or time-cycles – Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali. Similarly in Mahabharata time is compared with wire-holders or sutradhara (stage-manager) of the universe for which every worldly events take place. [1]

[1] As found from Balslave, A. N., A study of Time in Indian Philosophy, P. 11 – 12

In this article we want to discuss about Sri Aurobindo’s theory of Time.

Actually in Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy the notion of Time is implicitly present everywhere. Because of his acquaintance with the European culture, he calls Time as Zeitgeist following the European tradition. In his opinion, Zeitgeist or kāla is expressing itself behind every event taken place in the universe. Here we can notice the influence of the Vedas over his theory of Time, when he, following Vedas, clearly mentions that Time is the main cause behind every historical change. Whenever Sachchidananda i.e. the Absolute, in the involutionary process of creation, (for making lila) tries to manifest himself in the cosmic form, the first thing he needs is Time or kāla. Time also has a spiritual character in the sense that it is the Subjective self-extension of the spiritual reality (the Sachchidananda) for the purpose of cosmic manifestation. In his Life Divine we discover that, Time is the names for the self-extension of the one Absolute reality. According to him, ‘Thus by the very nature of the world-play as it has been realized by Sachchidananda in the vastness of His existence extended as Space and Time..’[1]

[1] Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 122

From the earlier paragraph we can derive that, in Sri Aurobindo’s idea, Time is nothing but a power of God. Actually here we can co-relate his theory with difference Vedas. According to both Atharva Veda & Rig Veda, kala or Time is a cosmic force (Verma, V.P., Political Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, p. 48).

Like these two Vedas also in Sri Aurobindo’s theory the main emphasis is given upon the creative aspect of Time as time is the helpful instrument or creative power necessary for God’s self-extension into the cosmic forms. Since time is considered helpful for the cosmic manifestation of the Absolute, so we can conclusively derive it as a force or power of God. This is actually the first interpretation of the notion of Time.

However in the second interpretation Time is itself considered as the Absolute. Sri Aurobindo calls Time-Spirit as Lord Krishna. In Gita we find Sri Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in Kurukshetra in this regard –

Kalo’smi lokaksayakrt pravrddho

lokan samahartumiha pravrttah.

rt’pi tvam na bhavisyanti sarve

ye’vasthitah pratyanikesu yodhah.

tasmattvamuttistha yaso labhasva

jitva satrun bhunksva rajyam samrddham.

mayaivaite nihatah purvameva

nimittamatram bhava savyasacin.

‘I am Time who waste and destroy the peoples; lo, I have arisen in my might, I am here to swallow up the nations. Even without thee all they shall not be, the men of war who stand arrayed in the opposing squadrons. Therefore do thou arise and get thee great glory, conquer thy foes and enjoy a great and wealthy empire. For these, they were slain even before and it is I who have slain them; be the occasion only, O Savyasachin.’[1]

[1] Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of the Karmayogin, p. 56-57

The Visvarupa or world-form of Sri Krishna, depicting him as Time-spirit, is not just a metaphor but a reality of the higher & subtler stages of existence. In Bhagavatgita it is clearly demonstrated. From Gita, Sri Aurobindo derives the truth about the utter helplessness of human beings in front of all powerful kala who is basically responsible for whatever happens in their lives, either the misery or the happiness. So, the creation, preservation as well as destruction of the world & worldly–creatures will happen at the will of Lord Krishna who himself is Zeitgeist or Kala. From Atharva Veda we can derive similar notion about time, as it also considers Time as the creator, sustainer & destroyer of the universe which can be none else than God himself. Hence we can conclude that perhaps indirectly Atharva Veda also accepts Time as God.

Now let us compare Sri Aurobindo’s notion of Time with that of Indian philosophical systems. It is really very much amazing to discover the similarity of his theory and that of the Nyaya system. Both of them consider Time as the real and eternal substance. Eternity is that quality which has been admitted by them both.  However Sri Aurobindo divides the Time-Spirit into three divergent statuses – ‘First, there is the timeless immboile status which is supremely self-concentrated and self-immersed and is without developments of consciousness in movement or eventuation. Secondly, there is the status of simultaneous integrality of Time. It is a stable whole-consciousness of the successive historical relations of all manifested things and phenomena. Thirdly, there is the temporal movement of the self-awareness in terms of history effectuating what was seen in the stable vision’[1]. From this above quoted portion we can also derive his similarity with the Jaina notion of Time. The Jaina system accepts the two different types of Kala – Absolute Time or Paramarthika Kala & conventional Time or Vyavaharika Kala. The Absolute Time is actually the timeless or eternal entity. Whereas the Conventional Time is the same Absolute Time limited within the fixed time-span. In the same way, the Absolute Spirit or Sachchidananda is the timeless entity, and when he manifests himself into the different cosmic forms within some limited time-span, they can be known as the temporal forms of the same Absolute entity.

[1] Verma, V.P., Political Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, p. 47

However his theory of Time is quite different from every other discipline. No other Indian tradition considers the Absolute as the Time-Spirit like Sri Aurobindo. In his view, Time is nothing but Basudeva himself busy in creation by the help of self-extension. ‘The impetus of the Mahakala fulfills itself in Time. When there is an impulsion from the secret reality, time and the divine mother take charge of it and work for its fulfillment. When the spiritual being designs to work in a particular direction, then all the external cosmic forces are organized and harnessed for the successful execution of that. The sole task that becomes imperative is the effective realization of that one single purpose. Really speaking, the help or resistance of man is irrelevant because if the Time-Spirit is insistent it would not desist till its purpose has been realized’[1]. Man’s helplessness in front of Time reminds us about his being the tool in the hands of the Absolute who uses him and all his fellow-beings to fulfill his Divine purpose of creating the universe. May be that is the reason why Sri Aurobindo derives (perhaps logically) that the Time-Spirit is nothing but Basudeva himself.

[1] Verma, V. P., Political Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, p. 46

Our discussion can be ended with this high note of discovering the uniqueness of Sri Aurobindo’s notion of Time where Time = God or the Divine Spirit. Perhaps his deep faith over Basudeva leads him towards this conclusion. (As could be seen in his Uttarpara Speech where he describes his experience of Basudeva among everyone & everybody at Alipore Jail). Thus whatever is the reason behind, basically his theory of Time is influenced by his metaphysical beliefs which occupy the central role in his philosophy.


  1. Balslave, Anindita Niyogi, A study of Time in Indian Philosophy, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1999.
  2. Verma, V. P., Political Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, Motilal Banarasidas, Patna, 1960.
  3. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1919. (Seventh edition 2006).
  4. Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Karmayogin, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1918. (Second Impression 2007).


[As extracted from my same named article published in the International Journal named Research Revolution, edited by Shekhar Chourasia, February, 2013]



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