The Vedic concept of time, like that of the ancient Egyptians and the Mayans, was cyclical. As per their cosmovision, in addition to the cycles of day and night, and the cycles of the seasons, there exists another cycle of time known as the Yuga Cycle or the Cycle of the World
Ages. The ‘Laws of Manu’ inform us that that the Yuga Cycle is of 12,000 years duration, and is comprised of four Yugas or World Ages – Krita or Satya, Treta, Dwapara and Kali. As humanity moves from the Krita Yuga to the Kali Yuga, the level of virtue and human capabilities, both physical and mental, gradually decrease, and reaches its nadir in the Kali Yuga, the age of darkness, in which we currently find ourselves.
However, sometime during the dark ages, the Yuga Cycle duration 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’. The fallacy of this approach was rectified by the renowned Vedic seer, Swami Yukteswar. In the book The Holy Science (1894), Yukteswar clarified that a
complete Yuga Cycle takes 24,000 years, and is comprised of an ascending Yuga Cycle of 12,000 years when virtue gradually increases (Kali, Dwapara, Treta, Krita) and a descending Yuga Cycle (Krita, Treta, Dwapara, Kali) of another 12,000 years, in which virtue gradually decreases.
The interpretation of Swami Yukteswar can be intuitively understood, since everything in nature moves in ascending and descending cycles. We know that the Babylonians, Egyptians, Mayans and the Incans all used a daily time system that comprised of 12 ascending time periods (our AM) and 12 descending time periods (our PM) for a 24 hour day. In the cycle of the seasons too, we can see that the intensity of sunlight gradually increases from winter to summer for a period of roughly 12 lunar hemicycles (i.e. the time taken from New Moon to Full Moon and vice versa), and then decreases from summer to winter for another period of 12 lunar hemicycles.
The belief in the Yuga Cycle was widely prevalent in the ancient world. Giorgio de Santillana mentions approximately thirty ancient cultures that believed in the concept of a series of ages, with alternating Dark and Golden Ages, as documented in the book Hamlet’s Mill (1969). The Greeks, Romans, Celts, Hopi Indians – all have detailed accounts of the World Ages which are surprisingly alike in their descriptions. Interestingly, the complete Yuga Cycle of 24,000 years closely matches 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. In recent years, it has been observed that the rate of precession is ‘increasing’ which means that the duration of the Precessional Year is ‘decreasing’. It is possible, therefore, that the current precessional value of 25,765 years is simply a temporary deviation from its ‘average’ value of 24,000 years, as documented in the ancient Vedic texts.
In addition to the Yuga Cycle, the Vedic texts also tell us of another large cycle of time known as a ‘Day of Brahma’, also referred to as a ‘Kalpa’ which is equal to a 1000 Mahayugas or Yuga Cycles. The Vishnu
Purana tells us that at the end of a ‘Day of Brahma’ the physical universe is destroyed and is dissolved into the waters of the Primordial Ocean. This is followed by a ‘Night of Brahma’ which is of equal duration as the ‘Day of Brahma’ when no life forms exist. At the end of the ‘Night of Brahma’, the universe is once again created by Vishnu from unmanifested matter. This phenomenon of cyclic creation and destruction events is also explained by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita:
“Those who understand the cosmic laws know that the Day of Brahma ends after a thousand yugas and the Night of Brahma ends after a thousand yugas. When the day of Brahma dawns, forms are brought forth from the Unmanifest; when the night of Brahma comes, these forms merge in the Formless again. This multitude of beings is created and destroyed again and again in the succeeding days and nights of Brahma.”
In order to derive the value of a ‘Kalpa’ i.e. a ‘Day of Brahma’ we need to remember that as per the Vedic and Puranic texts, the Yuga Cycle (also known as a Mahayuga), consisting of the four yugas, is considered to be of 12,000 years duration, which is half the duration of the Precessional Year. Therefore, a ‘Day of Brahma’ lasts for 12,000*1000 i.e. 12 million years, which is followed by a ‘Night of Brahma’ of equal duration. The implications are fascinating: all life forms on the planet earth are extinguished after 12 million years! These life forms then remain in a dormant, unmanifested form for a further 12 million years. And then, at the end of the ‘Night of Brahma’, new life forms are brought forth by the creative process from unmanifested matter.
Thus, we have a cyclical, 24 million year period of cosmic creation and dissolution, much like the 24,000 year precessional year, and the 24 hours of day and night. The essential similarity between the macrocosm and the microcosm couldn’t be any clearer. It is easy to see that the time period between two successive ‘cosmic dissolution’ events is 24 million years. It occurred to me that if this information is correct, then this cycle of creation and destruction should also be reflected in the fossil records of the planet earth. And amazingly enough, this is exactly what has been revealed by recent paleontological evidence: every 26 million years there is a
mass extinction of species on the earth!
Consider this: 66 million years ago the dinosaurs were thriving on the earth. However, today we can only find their bones and fossils in natural history museums. What happened to them? Scientists believe that 65 million years ago the earth went through a period a rapid death, called a mass extinction. But this episode is not the only mass extinction recorded in the fossil record. There are many more. And in recent years paleontologists have suggested that these mass extinctions occur in a regular cycle.
In 1984, paleontologists David Raup and Jack Sepkoski published a paper in the Journal of the Geological
Society of London (vol 146, pp 7-19), claiming that they had identified a statistical periodicity in extinction rates over the last 250 million years. In his research, Sepkoski prepared a listing of about a quarter of a million species of sea-dwelling creatures, both extinct and current, noting the point in time where they appeared and became extinct. Sepkoski confined the study to marine organisms because the chances of finding fossils are much higher under the sea-bed. To further study extinction periods, Sepkoski decided to concentrate on the last 250 million years of geologic time and to throw out animals whose point of appearance and disappearance were debated. He was left with about 500 of his original 3,500 marine families (250,000 species). Sepkoski put the data through computer analysis and was surprised to find that life forms on earth seemed
to disappear drastically exactly every 26.2 million years.
Fig 1: The original extinction data of Raup and Sepkoski. This plot represents the extinction rate (vertical axis) vs. time (horizontal axis). The extinction rate peaks every 26 million years, which are marked by the arrows.
The extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago has been followed by two more extinction events. We can find a surprising correlation between the extinction dates calculated by Raup and Sepkoski and those arrived at from the Vedic texts. The Vishnu Purana states that we are now at the middle of the first day of the 51st year of Brahma. Since a Day of Brahma lasts for 12 million years, this implies it has been roughly 6 million years since the beginning of the current cycle of creation i.e. the current ‘Day of Brahma’. Therefore, as per the Vishnu Purana, the previous destruction events should have taken place as per the following timelines: 18 million years ago, 42 million years ago and 66 million years ago. This matches very closely with the dates calculated by Sepkoski: 11 million years ago, 38 million years ago and 65 million years ago.
While the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, nearly coincides with the date arrived at from the Puranic calculations, there is a slight deviation in the other cases. We should remember that the dates calculated by Sepkoski are approximate, and depend on the sample characteristics and various assumptions inherent in the model. Besides, we know the duration of the 24,000 year Precessional Year is not constant, but appears to fluctuate between 26,000 and 22,000 years. Therefore, it is quite likely that the duration of a cosmic cycle of creation and dissolution also fluctuates between 22 million years and 26 million years, with ‘mean’ value of 24 million years. The periodicity of these fluctuations need to be understood and considered in order to correctly calculate the previous dates of cosmic destruction. Also, the statement that we are currently in the ‘middle’ of the current ‘Day of Brahma’ cannot be taken literally to mean that it has been exactly 6 million years since the previous destruction event. It could be slightly more or less than 6 million years.
Certain variations of the 26 million year cycle have also been identified by other researchers. In 2005, two scientists of UC Berkeley, Muller and Rohde, relooked at the data investigated by Raup and Sepkoski, and identified a 62 million year cycle of mass extinction, which appears to be a ‘multiple’ of the 26 million year cycle identified by Sepkoski. Muller and Rohde presented their findings in the March 10, 2005 issue of the journal Nature. They had considered only 17,797 genera (out of the total 36,380 considered by Sepkoski) since they eliminated those with uncertain ages and those with only a single occurrence. Muller and Rohde then tried to fit a smooth, best-fit trend curve through the data, which did not accurately fit the data, since the periods of extinctions show a sudden drop while the period of recovery has gentle slopes. However, the 26 million year cycle has been corroborated by a number of detailed analyses carried out by Sepkoski, Rampino, Caldeira and other scientists, which establishes the periodicity of the mass extinction events and also confirms that there must be a single, cyclical underlying cause for these events.
It would be fair to conclude, on the basis of the above analysis, that the 24 million year cycle of creation and destruction, comprising of a ‘Day of Brahma’ and a ‘Night of Brahma’, is embedded in the fossil records of the planet earth. There is no consensus, however, in the scientific community regarding what causes these periodic extinction events. When Muller and Rohde had published their findings they conceded that they had carefully analyzed every conceivable phenomenon in nature in search of an explanation: “We’ve had to think about Solar System dynamics, about the causes of comet showers, about how the galaxy works, and how volcanoes work, but nothing explains what we’ve discovered,” Muller said. “We’re getting frustrated and we need help. All I can say is that we’re confident the cycles exist, and I cannot come up with any possible explanation that won’t turn out to be fascinating. There’s something going on in the fossil record, and we just don’t know what it is.”
The presence of enhanced levels of iridium in the soil layers at the geological boundaries, as well as the discovery of impact craters on the earth that match with the extinction periodicity, have led scientists to propose that the extinction events have been triggered by large body impacts from outer space, possibly from periodic comet showers. As per the popular ‘Nemesis’ hypothesis, our sun may have a binary companion, which periodically disturbs the comets in the spherical Oort cloud that surrounds the Solar System, triggering a cometary incursion into the inner Solar System. However, a binary companion of the sun has not been found till date, in spite of extensive sky surveys. There are suggestions that the binary companion may be a ‘brown dwarf’ or a ‘black hole’ which cannot be easily detected in sky surveys. However, many scientists believe that the proposed orbit of the hypothetical binary companion is far too elliptical and unstable to account for the mass extinction events. The Nemesis hypothesis, as result, is gradually losing credibility within scientific circles.
The explanations for the mass extinction phenomenon provided in the ancient texts have been couched in mysterious symbolisms that have been impossible to decode. The Mahabharata tells us that “a fire from the mouth of the underground serpent will burn the lower worlds, then the surface of the earth, and will set the atmosphere ablaze. This mass of fire will burn with a great noise. Surrounded by these circles of fire, all animate and inanimate objects will be destroyed.” Similar accounts have been preserved by the Nordic people of Ragnarok, the final destruction of the world. They believe that during Ragnarok, ‘Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent, will rise from the deep ocean bed to proceed towards the land, twisting and writhing in fury on his way, causing the seas to rear up and lash against the land. The stars will come adrift from the sky and the giant sun will set the entire earth on fire; the universe will become an immense furnace. All living things, all plant life, will be blotted out.’
These descriptions seem to suggest a cosmic catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. But the exact nature of this phenomenon still eludes us. What is certain, however, is this: the ancients were aware of the mass extinction events that are recorded in the fossil history of the earth, as well as the cosmic phenomenon that triggers these periodic catastrophic destructions. And this information has been transmitted down to us for uncounted millennia, couched in various mysterious symbols, myths and metaphors. It is now up to us to decode this information.
Bibhu Dev Misra is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Management and has been working as an Information Technology consultant for more than 12 years, for various organizations across the world. He is also an independent researcher and writer on topics related to ancient civilizations, myths, symbols, religion and spirituality and has travelled to many places of historical, religious and architectural importance. His articles have appeared in various internet websites and magazines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and via his personal blog: http://bibhudev.blogspot.com