Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

Reflections on Time in Indian Philosophy: With
Comments on So-Called Cyclic Time

Anindita Niyogi Balslev

Summary The enigmatic character of the time experience has challenged the human intellect without regard to cultural boundaries. A survey of the history of Indian philosophy reveals a deep involvement with the problem of time. It is possible to identify several distinct and often contradictory conceptual models of time put forward by different schools of Indian philosophy. In an intercultural framework, however, it seems commonplace to maintain that a predominant feature of Indian thought is the notion of cyclic time. This appellation ignores the great diversity in the views of time within the Indian traditions. Moreover, the notion of cyclic time has never been an issue for debate, nor can it be identified as the view of any particular school. The conceptual model of cyclic time, derived from the Hellenic tradition, apparently has resulted in misinterpretations of the Indian position, because both traditions have certain features in common. In this connection it is important to understand the true meaning of the pattern of recurrence that is woven into the texture of Indian thought. It is equally significant to grasp the philosophical function of the symbol of the wheel in Indian culture.

The problem of time, as the history of ideas bears witness to, has challenged the human intellect across the boundaries of disciplines and cultures. The deep involvement with this problem is evident Indian philosophical traditions.1 One can trace from the early texts-- at the level of myths and allegories--ideas about time that are impregnated with suggestions influencing the formation of later theories. Fully developed views about time, however, belong to that stage of philosophical growth where speculations crystallized and took the shape of distinct schools of thought.

It is possible to identify several conceptual models of time in the history of Indian philosophy. The contrast of ideas is awe inspiring--at one end of the scale there is a unitary view of time and at the other end there is a pluralistic view. Some have maintained the objective, independent reality of time, whereas others counteract this stand, pointing to its phenomenal character. The reader even encounters the startling inquiry regarding whether being and time coalesce ontologically and hence their separation is to be attributed to an arbitrary linguistic convention.

In an intercultural framework, however, this diversity of conceptual models is generally overlooked. Thus, for instance, it seems commonplace to maintain that the notion of cyclic time is a characteristic and predominant feature of Indian thought. In this connection it is striking to observe that upon closer study of the sources there is no evidence for this contention. The notion of cyclic time, as will be clear from the following survey, has never been an issue for debate, nor can it be identified as the view of any particular school. We

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