The Four Yugas
For anyone curious about Yoga and any of its more hidden or under-explored esoteric aspects, the four seasons of the universe ––also known as the Four Yugas–– is as rich a topic as anyone can dream of.
Combining elements pertaining to Yoga as a philosophy-turned-practice and to Hinduism as a religion, it adds up some numerological and cosmological aspects to the mix so that the Four Yugas or ages of the universe can teach us lots about where we are currently at as a species and, most importantly, what to practice, how to practice, and when to practice because of this.
This post today will be entry one of two (see next week's blogpost) to cover everything there is to know about the Yugas once and for all!
There's an Age for Everything
From the Sanskrit term for 'age,' the form Yuga refers to one of the four stages of creation in the allegorical cyclical lifespan of our universe. You can think of them as the four different seasons our universe is supposed to go through in its perpetual dance from beginning to end. If this brings to mind the notions of expansion and contraction so typical of Physics that's cause they're basically speaking of the same thing.
Each of these seasons or cycles can last from thousands to millions of years, depending on the exact Yuga, and they repeat themselves much like our calendar seasons, over and over again. One thing to note is that in Hinduism time is not linear but cyclical, a spiralling mess of sorts; hence, the notion of the Yugas borrows from this to tell us the story of the creation and destruction of everything gross and subtle both in the world and in us.
As a whole, the repetition of several cycles of Yugas ––70 to be more precise–– is said to conform a greater cosmological time unit called a manuvantara. For every 14 manuvantaras (that is, for every 14 repetitions of 70 cycles of 4 Yugas) we get a Kalpa or an entire 'creation cycle'; which means that each Kalpa essentially amounts to several billions of years at a time! If this sounds a bit abstract or complicated, it's because it is. But it's all just mainly a way of saying that time flies; that our perception and notion of time as something real and material is fleeting, to say the least; and that, in the larger picture of things, what we are currently undergoing globally ––a great deal of change, turmoil, and uncertainty–– is part of the natural course of things for the particular Yuga we're in (more on this below).
If the word 'Yuga' reminds you slightly of how the word 'Yoga' sounds that's because they come from the same Sanskrit root. So, hidden at the heart of the concept of the Four Yugas is again the notion of 'union': the idea that these four Yugas do belong together to conform a larger synchronic whole ––which is also, in a way, what Yoga is all about.
More than Meets the Eye
According to the scriptures, then, there are four main seasons in the universe that follow one another: Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, and Kali Yuga. Each possesses certain unique qualities, tendencies and connotations and symbolically represents a lower state of consciousness or vibration from the one immediately prior. From the subtlest to the grossest, each age unfolds with greater potential for change, fluctuation, and transformation and, as a consequence, with an exponential acceleration of movement that turns everything more unstable.
In any case, more than just 'mere seasons,' what many modern-day descriptions about the Yugas forget to note is how these different ages of the universe connect to many of Yoga's most profoundly spiritual aspects ––namely, to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra and to the Eight Limbs of Yoga (with its Yamas and Niyamas), as well as to the Three Bodies of Yoga, the Chakras and the Koshas. There is a wealth of hidden metaphors in the concept of the Four Yugas that have been turned into a beautiful mythology of time. So let's unravel the four a little and discuss their deeper philosophical and yogic aspects on our next blog entry.
Supposed to be the age of truth and innocence, Satya Yuga is also the season of sattwa, hence its name. If you've read some of our entries before, you'll know by now that sattwa is that quality that both Ayurveda and Yoga identify with perfect balance and equilibrium. We practice Yoga to become more sattvic and harmonious. Satya Yuga, then, is an age characterised by a flow and ebb of constant tranquility and peace, qualities that find expression at all levels, from the macro to the micro, from the global to the individual, and from the extraordinary to the mundane.
Because of its great refinement and quasi-ethereal nature, the millions of years comprising this particular Yuga or season tend to call for similarly righteous and well-intended 'beings.' This is the reason why some of the classical texts often refer to them as suras or devas, which is basically a way of appealing to their almost god-like nature ––so pure and balanced, they emulate perfection.
Satya Yuga, then, is an age of slow and gentle progression where the predominant energies in everything are 'sattvic' in nature making up for a time characterised by a great deal of equanimity and harmony. The beings populating the span of years comprising this 'season' echo a certain purity in thought and action too, which basically means they're more spiritual than material and have developed less gross attachments than us! Indeed, Satya Yuga represents a highly evolved plane of consciousness and, therefore, a time of great spiritual refinement.
Tetra Yuga follows directly from Satya Yuga as a time when the quality of sattwa has slightly diminished in proportion. The word Treta means 'three,' and so, as the scriptures note, this age is three parts righteousness and one part mischief. The universe and beings existing during these period of (millions of) years are still pure and balanced like in Satya Yuga but they begin to exhibit a tendency towards misalignment too. And so, as the attachment towards less ethereal pursuits increases, so diminishes our ability to recall purity. Hence, Treta Yuga represents a slightly lower plane of consciousness than Satya Yuga, with all the implications of the latter.
Following directly from Treta Yuga for another gazillion years, here again the quality of sattwa proportionally diminishes in relation to Treta Yuga as well. In fact, 'Dva' comes from the Sanskrit term for 'two'; and so, the ratio of purity and impurity or peace and conflict during Dvapara Yuga is equal, meaning that there's as much of a tendency towards balance and equilibrium as there are the opposite forces too. Essentially, this means that both nature and the creatures existing during these season's span have tendency towards stark polarization; and so, while some remain righteous and spiritually inclined, some have the exact opposite inclination. Nature shows similarly dualistic patterns, back and forth from prosperity and disaster.
The last of the four ages in a cycle, Kali Yuga ––our current season–– stands for the age of darkness and ignorance, with the deity of Kali acting as a subtle reminder for the potential for destruction inherent in this time. This is the age of gross materialism, where the plane of consciousness of everything inhabiting the universe has descended from the ethereal into the material realm in such a stark way, that few of us are able to even remember how to ascend even a little again.
As the sages say, "at the end of each Kali Yuga there is a Pralaya, a period when all societies and communities are destroyed, usually by natural calamities" (1993, p. 100). And that is, according to Yoga, where we are currently headed towards at the moment.
Indeed, only in the last four decades, the pace of life and transformation of pretty much everything on Earth has increased significantly. And as usual, with greater acceleration comes also greater instability, both at a social, political and economical level.
What to Make of Them?
What the Yugas essentially speak about is how the time we live in ––the period of time we happen to inhabit at any one point–– affects both how we act and think, as well as the kinds of aspirations and desires we'll be inclined to strive for and achieve. Hence, the more refined and spiritual the time we're born into, the easier it is for us to forgo material and base pleasures and focus on the development of our inner being (thus bringing us closer to sattwa and to Satya Yuga). The less refined and spiritual the time we're born into, the easier it its for us to forego any subtler inclination and favour the material instincts of accumulation and exploitation (bringing us closer to the vibration predominant during Kali Yuga and our current situation).
The notion of the Four Yugas, then, functions as a sort of global compass meant to help us determine how far we've strayed from Satya Yuga and how to bring more of its sattwic connotations back into whatever Yuga or age we find ourselves in.