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Concepts of Time: Ancient and Modern


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This is one of those paradoxes in life. Man, a total prisoner of time ceaselessly trying to gauge the name and nature of his jailor. What control has man in ordering the time of his birth or in extending his stay on this earth? The truth about man's awareness of time was stated with deadly adequacy by Macbeth :

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this pretty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time.

While recorded time eludes our attempts to understand it, the totality of time could overwhelm us should we try to envision it.

If we are not overwhelmed by the tides in Concepts of Time: Ancient and Modern, it is because Kapila Vatsyayan has expertly dispersed the power of the stream over mortal man by approaching Time from various stances.

As the editor of a sheaf of papers submitted at a seminar held by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, her task has been an unenviable one. The subject is uncontainable; the papers of varied lengths and standards; some seminarians have given her only outlines and others notes of their oral presentations; a few have even played complete truants. But nothing can daunt Kapilaji. The resulting volume definitely extends the frontiers of our knowledge of Time which is said to be the Supreme's guise.

The vital essence of the papers and the rarefied atmosphere that prevailed during the five-day international seminar held in 1990 are handed down to us in the 28-page editorial introduction. So many concepts and ever so many approaches. With Kapilaji's assurance that "these were and are not ivory tower discussions of an esoteric order", we settle down to David Park's 'Natural Law and the Individual Event' which seeks to relate the Law of Time to individual experiences of its presence. As Macbeth does, when he seeks a meaning (or non-meaning) in the life of Lady Macbeth that had not shunned ambition and had been broken up like a negligible twig in autumnal winds.

Prof. Park begins with the earliest formulation of a general law by Anaximander of Miletus in the sixth century B.C.:

The source from which existing things derive their existence is also that to which they return at their destruction, for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time.

Raimon Panikkar gives something harder to chew in 'Kalasakti : The Power of Time.' Man is necessarily "time-conscious", and he must proceed by "intellectual intuition and integral experience" to understand time. Compartmentalisation of categories would lead us nowhere. It must also be remembered that even knowledge acquired by an integral approach would still remain incomplete.

In the vast continum of time, where is the place for an absolute definition? "It (Time) exists no-where. We may have a notion of time, but not a noema." One can visualise Raimon Panikkar with his dreamy eyes, expressive gestures and soft voice leading the seminarians over long pathways of logic to arrive at the final statement which is adequate in its own way : "The Kalasakti, the power of time, reveals herself as the sakti of the Divine, of Siva, one tradition will say, of Reality we may translate in a more general way."

A roll call of eminent scholars follows. Among them, S Rinpoche, M.A. Lakshmithathachar, Bettina Baumer and Nabi Hadi write expertly on the concept of time in Buddhism, vishistadvaita, Kashmir Salvism and Sufism respectively.

Scholars like Tan Chung, Frits Staal and B.N. Saraswati take charge of the socio-cultural reactions to man's existence in time.

Fortunately for us, none of the essays is dull. And there is positive exuberance and ecstasy when Kapilaji introduces us to the presence of time is arts and literature. What had seemed familiar and mundane now puts on the garments of beauty and spiritual transcendence.

Chandra Rajan makes linguistics leap to life with copious metaphors drawn from the Vedas; Kathleen Raine dealing with Blake (Jerusalem, Heaven and hell) calls for cleansing our perception to understand the infinitudes of existence; Keshav Malik presents his lullaby for the modern child in a maddening world; ancient Mesopotomia, Khajuraho and other Indian temples become living realities thanks to the delightful clarity in writing as well as the plates exhibited by Irene Winter, Devangana Desai and Adam Hardy.

Lest we feel left out of New Criticism, Michael Meister does a "de-and-re-constructing" of the Indian temple (aren't there visual similarities between the Assembly Building at Dacca and the Siva temple at Lamba?) as "an exemplar of the possibilities for a structural analysis of visual material", for it is unique in "the synchronacity of its cosmological image".

There is then the colourful spread of a couple of Udaipur Gita Govinda paintings accompanied by Kapilaji's emotively logical study of 'the verbal and visual imagery of memory" in Jayadeva's classic. "Memory is the central axis around which the poet makes loops in time. These effortlessly enlarge and expand to suggest ceaseless cosmic movement in undefined time."

Tala which helps the control of time for music is Prem Lata Sharma's subject. Like Bettina Baumer, V.N. Mishra, Peter Malekin, Devanagana Desai and others before her, Prof. Sharma brings in Shiva's image by introducing Abhinavagupta's mangalacharana, and then proceeds to explain the tala patterns in ancient music and how these forms have survived centuries of change in other music forms.

The parikrama in Concepts of Time : Ancient and Modern is quite long, and as we do in temples, this parikrama laid by more than fifty scholars to the temple of Kalasakti has to be traversed repeatedly to get at the truth about time. For the present, we could rest for a brief moment and listen to the measured accents of H.H the Dalai Lama, accents that quantify time as a sacred experience if turned to our internal consciousness:

"I think that if we use our time properly and live a peaceful life, whether we realise what time is or not, is not so important. In some ways time and space are too gentle with us, because whether we use them rightly, in a constructive way, or wrongly, in a negative way, they do not react one way or the other. This is something quite beautiful; time gives us an opportunity."

Kapilaji rightly refers to this valedictory speech as a benediction, "the final visarjana, the last rite of dissolution from discursive thought process into an undescribable experience of wholeness." But the festival would come again, the image will be set up for worship and the scholars continue the dialogue while the Lord's voice would echo in the universes through the Gita vakya : "I am Time, Kala, the supreme destroyer of three worlds, here visible in the three worlds."

Prema Nandakumar

The review, published in Deccan Herald newspaper on December, 1996 being reproduced with permission.

Concepts of Time : Ancient and Modern.

Kapila Vatsyayan, Editor, IGNCA and Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. pp. 562; Rs. 1,250/-

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