In the beginning time and space were together and in equilibrium. We do not know how this equilibrium was disturbed. But once it did, time came out and space started flowing and that was the beginning of the Universe.
Recently Gita’s verse on Time (Chapter 11 verse 32) has become famous because of the film on Robert Oppenheimer in which he has been shown reciting it when the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945 in New Mexico, US. Oppenheimer obviously used the wrong translation and quoted Gita as: “I have become Death – destroyer of the world”, instead of the correct version. “I have become Mighty Time – destroyer of the world”.
It does not matter what Oppenheimer said at that time but now this verse of Gita has become a major discussion point among Indians living both in India and the rest of the world. Thus, it will be interesting to discuss the concept of Time in Gita and what it means.
Time occupies a central place in the Indian philosophical tradition. For example, in Patanjali Yoga Sutras, the originator of Yoga, Patanjali clearly states that Ishwar – the creator of the Universe - is beyond Time (Section I. 26). In the Indian philosophical system it is also believed that in the beginning the three forces that define human characteristics - Satva, Rajas, and Tamas - were in equilibrium. When the equilibrium was disturbed (there is no explanation on why and how it happened), the Universe came into being.
This tallies with the modern concept of the time-space matrix. In the beginning time and space were together and in equilibrium. We do not know how this equilibrium was disturbed. But once it did, time came out and space started flowing and that was the beginning of the Universe.
Time therefore occupies a unique position in the scheme of things. So, when Lord Krishna says I have become Time he shows Arjun his divine attribute by saying he has presently come down from being “beyond time” to become it; and with time running its course the Universe has a beginning and an end. And that is what Lord Krishna implies in that verse that all the fighters in the Mahabharata battlefield will die irrespective of what one does or does not do.
Ancient Indians understood the concept of time and space and it is very prominently mentioned in Patanjali Yoga Sutras - there are close to 20 sutras on the concept of time in it. Incidentally, Verse 32 in Chapter 11 is the only verse in Gita on the concept of Time. Gita, some believe, is the distillation of all the yogic systems practiced in India and thus this verse has a great meaning.
However, we are not quite sure about our ancient scriptures: whether what we have today is really the original text or something else. This is because they were transmitted by oral tradition and not by writing. With time the text could have been corrupted, lost, or modified.
And since these scriptures talked about complex things like space-time, the origin of the Universe, etc. it is possible that quite a number of difficult-to-understand verses were either omitted or distorted. The same could be true of Gita.
Origin of Universe
Interestingly, Lord Krishna decided to show Arjun his true Oneness as written in Chapter 11 which was basically about galaxy formation (brighter than a thousand suns) and a glimpse of black hole creation. So, from the discussion of how to live a good life and follow a great Kshatriya dharma, Lord Krishna talks about space-time and the origin of the Universe. This was quite a leap of imagination on the part of Gita’s author.
Nevertheless, this movie on Oppenheimer, should encourage young people to study the Gita and try to understand its true meaning.
(The writer, an IIT and US-educated Indian engineer, a 2022 Padma Shri award winner, is the Director, of Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra. Views are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)