The Notion of Time in India: An Introduction
Professor Charles Ess, Drury College
From Hajime Nakamura's Notion of Time in India
The Indian conception of time is very different from what the Western mind regards as intuitively obvious. In Indian thought, time, like other phenomena, is conceived statically rather than dynamically. It is, of course, recognized that the things of this world are always moving and changing. But the substance of things is seen as basically unchanging, its underlying reality unaffected by the ceaseless flux. The Indian does not concede that we never step into the same river twice; he directs our attention not to the flow of water but to the river itself, the unchanging universal. Indian thought places a high value on universality, and the connection between this, and the static conception of phenomena, is of course not accidental. "The one remains, the many change and flee."
This static conception of time permeates Indian thought. [In contrast,] Western people comprehend action through its changing aspects, while Indians tend to comprehend it attributively. In particular, many Indians consider that action is an unchanging aspect, even an attribute, of existence. Westerners tend to regard action as an active phenomenon while Indians tend to look upon it statically. In the sentence sabbe sankhara anicca (all things are impermanent), a basic idea of Indian Buddhism, anicca, is an adjective. For an Indian, even the statement that "all things of this world are changing and moving" is not, as it was for Heraclitus, the expression of the changing aspects of existences, but the expression of a static and unchanging state.
There are evident similarities here to ancient Greek thought, at least in its Platonic and Parmenidean aspects. Plato formulated the antithesis between Being and Becoming; he saw the true essence of reality as consisting of changeless, timeless forms.' Geometry, as an investigation of the fixed forms of material bodies in space, was the typical pattern of science in ancient times, and in the physical sciences only statics was developed. Interest in the changing world of phenomena, however, was also an important element in Greek thought; "all things flow" is after all as Greek as Plato's ideal forms. Modern thought has concerned itself increasingly (though not exclusively) with Becoming; kinetics has replaced statics in the center of the physicist's attention, and mathematics has turned to analytics and algebra, in which variable quantities are examined. Modern thought is described as "progressive," "dynamic"; the unique contribution of Indian thought, in contrast, can be a kind of rest and joyfulness which may be very welcome to those who are tired of the frantic movement of their culture.
Last modified 15 December 2000