A number of ancient cultures believed in a Cycle of World Ages in which we gradually descend from a state of spiritual perfection and material abundance to one of ignorance and scarcity. In ancient India, this was called the Yuga Cycle. The Yuga Cycle doctrine tells us that we are now living in the Kali Yuga; the age of darkness, when moral virtue and mental capabilities reach their lowest point in the cycle.
The Mahabharata describes the Kali Yuga as the period when the “World Soul” is Black in hue; only one quarter of virtue remains, which slowly dwindles to zero at the end of the Kali Yuga. Men turn to wickedness; disease, lethargy, anger, natural calamities, anguish and fear of scarcity dominate. Penance, sacrifices and religious observances fall into disuse. All creatures degenerate. Change passes over all things, without exception.
The Kali Yuga (Iron Age) was preceded by three other Yugas: Satya or Krita Yuga (Golden Age), Treta Yuga (Silver Age) and the Dwapara Yuga (Bronze Age). In the Mahabharata, Hanuman gives the following description of the Yuga Cycle to the Pandava prince Bhima:
The Krita Yuga was so named because there was but one religion, and all men were saintly: therefore they were not required to perform religious ceremonies… Men neither bought nor sold; there were no poor and no rich; there was no need to labour, because all that men required was obtained by the power of will… The Krita Yuga was without disease; there was no lessening with the years; there was no hatred, or vanity, or evil thought whatsoever; no sorrow, no fear. All mankind could attain to supreme blessedness. The universal soul was White… the identification of self with the universal soul was the whole religion of the Perfect Age. In the Treta Yuga sacrifices began, and the World Soul became Red; virtue lessened a quarter. Mankind sought truth and performed religious ceremonies; they obtained what they desired by giving and by doing. In the Dwapara Yuga the aspect of the World Soul was Yellow: religion lessened one-half. The Veda was divided into four parts, and although some had knowledge of the four Vedas, others knew but three or one. Mind lessened, Truth declined, and there came desire and diseases and calamities; because of these men had to undergo penances. It was a decadent Age by reason of the prevalence of sin.1
Now we are living in the dark times of the Kali Yuga, when goodness and virtue has all but disappeared from the world. When did the Kali Yuga begin, and when does it end?
In spite of the elaborate theological framework of the Yuga Cycle, the start and end dates of the Kali Yuga remain shrouded in mystery. The popularly accepted date for the beginning of the Kali Yuga is 3102 BCE, thirty-five years after the conclusion of the battle of the Mahabharata. This date is believed to be based on a statement made by the noted astronomer Aryabhatta in the Sanskrit text Aryabhatiya, where he writes that:
When sixty times sixty years (i.e. 3,600 years) and three quarter Yugas had elapsed, twenty-three years had then passed since my birth.2
This means that Aryabhatta had composed the text when he was 23 years old and 3,600 years of the current Yuga had elapsed. The problem here is that we do not know when Aryabhatta was born, or when he composed the Aryabhatiya. He does not even mention the Kali Yuga by name, and simply states that 3,600 years of the Yuga had elapsed. Scholars generally assume that the Kali Yuga had started in 3102 BCE, and then use this statement to justify that the Aryabhatiya was composed in 499 CE. However, we cannot use the reverse logic, i.e. we cannot say that the Kali Yuga must have started in 3102 BCE since the Aryabhatiya was composed in 499 CE, for we do not know when Aryabhatta lived or completed his work.
Another important source is the Aihole inscription of Pulakesin II of Badami, which was incised on the expiry of 3,735 years after the Bharata war and 556 years of the Saka kings.3If we take the beginning of the Saka Era as 78 CE, then the Bharata War took place in 3102 BCE, then the Kali Yuga, which started 35 years after the Bharata War, began on 3067 BCE. But we must remember there is an Old Saka Era as well, whose beginning date is disputed, and for which various dates have been proposed by scholars ranging from 83 BCE – 383 BCE.4 If the Aihole inscription refers to the Old Saka Era, then the Kali Era starts a few hundred years before 3102 BCE.
The truth is that there is no text or inscription which gives us an unambiguous date for the beginning of the Kali Yuga. Although the popularly accepted date is 3102 BCE, there is no astronomical basis for it. There is a claim that the computation was based on the conjunction of the five ‘geocentric planets’ (i.e. the planets visible to the naked eye) – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – at 0° Aries at the beginning of the Kali Yuga as mentioned in the Surya Siddhanta. But the Surya Siddhanta explicitly states that this conjunction of planets at 0° Aries takes place at the end of the Golden Age.5 Besides, modern simulations indicate that on 17/18 February 3102 BCE, the five geocentric planets occupied an arc of roughly 42° in the sky, which cannot be considered as a conjunction by any means. Therefore, neither is there any astronomical basis for the start date, nor do we have any evidence that Aryabhatta or any other astronomer had calculated the date. Before the 6th century CE, the date does not occur in any Sanskrit text or inscription. It could have been invented by later day astronomers or adopted from some other calendar. The vagueness surrounding the origin of this very important chronological marker makes its validity highly suspect.
The task of figuring out the start date of the Kali Yuga from the ancient Sanskrit texts, however, is fraught with difficulties, since a number of inaccuracies have crept into the Yuga Cycle information contained within them. In many Sanskrit texts the 12,000-year duration of the Yuga Cycle was artificially inflated to an abnormally high value of 4,320,000 years by introducing a multiplication factor of 360, which was represented as the number of ‘human years’ which constitutes a ‘divine year’. In the book, The Arctic Home in the Vedas (1903), B.G. Tilak wrote that:
The writers of the Puranas, many of which appear to have been written during the first few centuries of the Christian, era, were naturally unwilling to believe that the Kali Yuga had passed away… An attempt was, therefore, made to extend the duration of the Kali Yuga by converting 1,000 (or 1,200) ordinary human years thereof into as many divine years, a single divine year, or a year of the gods, being equal to 360 human years… this solution of the difficulty was universally adopted, and a Kali of 1,200 ordinary years was at once changed, by this ingenious artifice, into a magnificent cycle of as many divine, or 360 × 1200 = 432,000 ordinary years.6
Yuga Cycle of 24,000 Years
However, certain important Sanskrit texts such as the Mahabharata7 and the Laws of Manu,8 which scholars believe were composed earlier than the Puranas, still retain the original value of the Yuga Cycle as 12,000 years. The Mahabharata explicitly mentions that the Yuga Cycle duration is based on the days and nights of human beings. The Zoroastrians also believed in a Cycle of the Ages of 12,000 years’ duration. The Great Year or Perfect Year of the Greeks was variously represented as being of 12,954 years (Cicero) or 10,800 years (Heraclitus) duration. Surely, the Yuga Cycle cannot be of different durations for different cultures.
In the book The Holy Science (1894)Sri Yukteswar clarified that a complete Yuga Cycle takes 24,000 years, and is comprised of an ascending cycle of 12,000 years when virtue gradually increases and a descending cycle of another 12,000 years, in which virtue gradually decreases. Hence, after we complete a 12,000-year descending cycle from Satya Yuga -> Kali Yuga, the sequence reverses itself, and an ascending cycle of 12,000 years begins which goes from Kali Yuga -> Satya Yuga. Yukteswar states that, “Each of these periods of 12,000 years brings a complete change, both externally in the material world, and internally in the intellectual or electric world, and is called one of the Daiva Yugas or Electric Couple.”9
The 24,000-year duration of the complete Yuga Cycle closely approximates the Precessional Year of 25,765 years, which is the time taken by the sun to ‘precess’, i.e. move backwards, through the 12 Zodiac constellations. Interestingly, the Surya Siddhanta specifies a value of 54 arc seconds per year for precession, as against the current value of 50.29 arc seconds per year. This translates into a Precessional Year of exactly 24,000 years! This means that the current observed value of precession may simply be a temporary deviation from the mean.
The concept of an ascending and descending cycle of Yugas is still prevalent among the Buddhists and Jains. The Jains believe that a complete Time Cycle (Kalachakra) has a progressive and a regressive half. During the progressive half of the cycle (Utsarpini), there is a gradual increase in knowledge, happiness, health, ethics, and spirituality, while during the regressive half of the cycle (Avasarpini) there is a gradual reduction in these qualities. These two half cycles follow each other in an unbroken succession for eternity, just like the cycles of day and night or the waxing and waning of the moon.
The ancient Greeks also appear to have believed in an ascending and descending Cycle of Ages. The Greek poet Hesiod (c. 750 BCE – 650 BCE) had given an account of the World Ages in Works and Days, in which he inserted a fifth age called the ‘Age of Heroes’, between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. In Hesiod’s Cosmos, Jenny Strauss Clay writes:
Drawing on the myth in Plato’s Statesman, Vernant also claimed that the temporal framework of Hesiodic myth, that is, the succession of races, is not linear but cyclical; at the end of the age of iron, which he divides into two, the cycle of races starts again with a new golden age or, more likely, a new age of heroes, as the sequence reverses itself…Vernant himself offers a solution when he remarks that “there is not in reality one age of iron but two types of human existence.”10
This is very interesting. Jean-Pierre Vernant, who is a highly-acclaimed specialist in ancient Greek culture, believes that the Cycle of the Ages reverses itself as per Hesiod’s account. Not only that, he states the Iron Age has two parts, which corresponds to Yukteswar’s interpretation in which the descending Kali Yuga is followed by the ascending Kali Yuga. We can surmise, in this context, that the ‘Age of Heroes’, which immediately followed the Bronze Age in Hesiod’s account, must be the name ascribed by Hesiod to the descending Kali Yuga.
The evidence from different sources supports the notion of a complete Yuga Cycle of 24,000 years, comprised of an ascending and descending cycle of 12,000 years each. This brings us to the question of the relative durations of the different Yugas in the Yuga Cycle, and the transitional periods, which occur at the beginning and end of each Yuga, and are known as Sandhya (dawn) and Sandhyansa (twilight) respectively. The values in the following table are provided in the Sanskrit texts for the duration of the Yugas and their respective dawns and twilights: