Another area where we could use scientific expertise is understanding time. We know that time is manifestation of the Supreme Lord that makes material elements “move” and thus enables the spirit souls to “experience” illusion but that doesn’t mean much to us in our present conditioned state. It IS true description of time, as it comes from śāstra, but it’s still very hard to comprehend so any help should be appreciated.
We know that there’s no time in the spiritual world but we can’t possibly imagine life without time. Do things happen simultaneously there? Is there any sense of cause-effect connection? Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes here comply with our ordinary flow of time – He gets born, grows up, moves out, has a lot of fun, and then leaves this world but we can’t imagine how they would appear in a timeless world.
We can accept that Kṛṣṇa exists in all stages of His life simultaneously but how can we understand things like killing demons? They don’t make sense without putting events in a sequence. If there’s no time then there’s no sequencing. Even if we talk about life in the spiritual world being about experiencing various bhāvas rather than events, still, even bhāvas follow some sort of the progress – first there’s fear, then there’s hope, then there’s jubilation of Kṛṣṇa’s triumph.
We say that spiritual world is all about relationships but relationships means interactions and interactions means sequencing – you say something, I say something in response – we can’t just talk at the same time and call it a relationship.
I would say that among all the material elements time is the most mysterious one. We understand the gross elements – ether, air etc. We understand the senses and sense objects. We understand mind, intelligence and even false ego. We can easily imagine ourselves to be different from all those and sometime we might even perceive ourselves as different from material elements but we can’t ever imagine ourselves to be independent from time. Our material consciousness is all we can experience and we can experience it only under the influence of time, so without time we got nothing.
I mean without time material things are just there, like pieces of a robot laid down on a table. Time assembles them together and makes them move. So we identify ourselves with some of those elements and then these elements start interacting with other elements and life as we know it begins.
There’s one interesting feature about time – we can’t feel it. It’s not a sense object and we don’t have a sense organ that can sense time. It’s there but it’s imperceptible. This makes time into an abstract concept that can be understood in various ways and that’s where empirical science can help us, too. Hmm, it’s not really empirical if we can’t sense it or observe it but somehow science got very good with abstractions.
There’s a natural limit to all their speculations but it’s pretty high – jñāna leads to realization of the impersonal aspect of the Absolute which is a lot more than we can realize now, and that realization is a necessary step on the path towards attaining devotion – we can’t become real devotees without being liberated first. Liberated from the clutches of time, btw.
Anyway, our most common misconception about time is that there’s some sort of a time line. That some things happened in the past, some are happening now, and some will happen in the future. We arrange them in sequence and we plot the history along the x-axis, which represents time. In reality, however, time is not linear. There’s no such thing as timeline and so there cannot be such thing as time travel – getting ourselves to different points on this imaginary timeline.
Instead of timeline we have an observable rate of change. It describes the same things but from a different perspective. Let’s say a train leaves station A and after 1 hour arrives at station B. What we usually do is imagine a timeline, put the starting point at, say 9 AM and the end point at 10 AM. Another way to look at it is to say that between departure and arrival the clock counted 60 minutes.
Sounds the same until we take into account theory of relativity that states that depending on where you are your clock might have counted 59 or 61 minutes. You and any other observer see the same train leaving station A and then see same train approaching station B but your clocks don’t show the same time. Practically never.
So, there’s no such thing as “train arrives one hour later” – every observer would insist that according to him it wasn’t an hour. We see same places and same objects but our time is never the same. Instead of a straight timeline connecting two points we have an unlimited number of all kinds of curves, all different in length.
This is just a prelude. For a person traveling at the speed of light time does not exist at all. Here we have to keep in mind that “speed of light” is very different from our common perception of speed, which is always relative. When we talk speed we mean that it can be faster or slower than some other speed. Speed of light, however, is fastest possible, it’s the absolute speed, speed of God, so to speak. It’s like infinity – there’s no number greater than infinity but infinity isn’t a number, it’s unattainable.
So, for a person traveling at the absolute speed time would not exist and neither would distances. He would reach destination at exactly the same moment he leaves his departing point. There would be no traveling at all, no experience of it even though departure and arrival would be two distinct points in space. There’d be no such thing as timeline either – the entire x-axis would be just one point, the ever present and unchanging NOW which includes all places and all events in history of the entire universe compressed to a single …, erm, not even a second, just an abstract point that doesn’t even have size. Points we draw on paper all have sizes, this one doesn’t have size at all, just a point.
Now, we can say that this speed of light is just an abstraction, we can never travel and experience such speed. Not entirely true – think of the Sun emitting its rays into space, some come to us, some go into the opposite direction and relative to those rays we ARE moving at the speed of light already.
When we say we can’t travel at the speed of light we mean we can’t travel relative to our perceptible surroundings.
See where this is all going?
We, as conditioned souls, experience time according to our particular illusion, it flows differently for each and every one of us. When we are free from the illusion time stops, it ceases to exist in a sense it doesn’t affect us anymore. Past, present, and future all compress into a one single point and there aren’t any others, there’d be no timelines. Timelines exist only for conditioned entities – demigods, ants, people etc. and time flows differently for each one of them.
To achieve the state of liberation we have to reach the absolute speed but we can’t do that if we bog ourselves down into identifying with and relating to our immediate surroundings. Once you see yourself as a man living in a house you can’t run away from that house at the speed of light. It is only possible if we identify ourselves with the Absolute rather than with material elements and temporary material phenomena. Then everything becomes possible and the world folds away into a single point of insignificance.
This “Absolute” is not Kṛṣṇa yet, just Brahman, that’s the limit to our speculations, but it’s a cool limit nevertheless – seeing our spiritual nature.
Compressing the entire universe to a point might also help understand how millions and billions of the universes come out of the body of Mahāviṣṇu. No magic, it’s just that without time there are no distances and sizes and we can fit as many universes into as little space as we want.
Well, I think this is a nice kind of speculation, the one that helps us understand the nature of the Supreme and the nature of the illusion. Unfortunately, my brains aren’t big enough to comprehend its true significance but there have been moments when I was blown away by simply thinking about it and it felt nice, I won’t deny it. The feeling is long gone but I had to say something about it anyway. Hope it helps.