Article: Cycles of time

The Jain concept of time is one of the most distinctive elements of Jain cosmological thought. It also demonstrates the repetitive and mathematical nature of Jain cosmology.

Time is endless and only exists in certain parts of ‘world space’ in Jain belief. In some areas it is a repeating cycle while in others it is not cyclical.

The current age is the fifth or unhappy stage – duṣamā – of a regressive cycle.

Lands of Action

Cyclical time is found only in some areas of the central continent of Jambū-dvīpa of Jain cosmology.

Jambū-dvīpa has several regions. In the Lands of Enjoyment people do not need to make any effort and can enjoy life. Here there is no cycle of time. However, in the Lands of Action, where human beings live and where they suffer and must work to live, time forms a repeating cycle.

Here a single cycle or kalpa is made up of two equal phases. Each phase or half-cycle has six periods of time, which vary in length. Each phase follows another without a break.

Cycle of time

In the part of the universe where human beings live, time moves in cycles. Each cycle has 12 parts of different length, moving through half-cycles where things gradually get worse – avasarpiṇi – and then gradually get better – utsarpiṇi. Then the cycle be

Cycle of time
Image by Anishshah19 © public domain

The cycle of time is traditionally represented as a wheel with 12 spokes, known as the Kālacakra. In the first phase – of six half-cycles – the quality of life gradually deteriorates while in the second one it slowly improves over the six periods.

In traditional Jain cosmology, time is endless and for humans is an unbroken sequence of cycles of time. Each cycle or kalpa is made up of two half-cycles or phases. Each half-cycle has six periods, lasting different lengths of time. Each of these periods of time is enormously long, far longer than a human lifetime, but has a fixed length.

In the first phase – of six half-cycles – the quality of life slowly worsens while in the second one it gradually gets better over the six periods. A full cycle of time therefore has 12 periods of time in total, half of them deteriorating, half of them improving.

The ‘Descending Phase’

The Sanskrit term for ‘descending phase’ is avasarpiṇi. Also called the ‘regressive half-cycle’, it sees the gradual worsening of conditions over the six eras. Life gradually declines in terms of knowledge, lifespan, stature, pleasure, morality and spirituality. In this phase, the conditions begin at ‘extremely happy’ and get worse over the course of the epochs until they end at ‘extremely unhappy’.

Descending cycle of time

English description

Sanskrit

Duration

extremely happy

suṣamā-suṣamā

4 crore of crore of sāgaropama

happy

suṣamā

3 crore of crore of sāgaropama

more happy than unhappy

suṣamā-duṣamā

2 crore of crore of sāgaropama

more unhappy than happy

duṣamā-suṣamā

1 crore of crore of sāgaropama

unhappy

duṣamā

21,000 years

extremely unhappy

duṣamā-duṣamā

21,000 years

In traditional Jain cosmology, time is endless and for humans is an unbroken sequence of cycles of time. Each cycle or kalpa is made up of two half-cycles or phases. Each half-cycle has six periods, lasting different lengths of time. Each of these periods of time is enormously long, far longer than a human lifetime, but has a fixed length.

In the first phase – of six half-cycles – the quality of life gradually declines while in the second one conditions steadily rise over the six periods. A full cycle of time therefore has 12 periods of time in total, half of them deteriorating, half of them improving.

The ‘Ascending Phase’

The Sanskrit term for ‘ascending phase’ is utsarpiṇi. Also called the ‘progressive half-cycle’, it sees the gradual improvement of conditions over the six epochs. Life gradually gets better in terms of knowledge, lifespan, stature, pleasure, morality and spirituality. In this phase, the conditions begin at ‘extremely unhappy’ and are enhanced over the course of the eras until they end at ‘extremely happy’.

Ascending cycle of time

English description

Sanskrit term

Duration

extremely unhappy

duṣamā-duṣamā

21,000 years

unhappy

duṣamā

21,000 years

more unhappy than happy

duṣamā-suṣamā

1 crore of crore of sāgaropama

more happy than unhappy

suṣamā-duṣamā

2 crore of crore of sāgaropama

happy

suṣamā

3 crore of crore of sāgaropama

extremely happy

suṣamā-suṣamā

4 crore of crore of sāgaropama

Each kalpa or cycle of time has two halves, each of six periods. One half-cycle is the ‘ascending phase’ – utsarpiṇi – while the other half is avarsarpiṇi or the ‘descending phase’.

Liberation

This manuscript painting shows perfect beings that have been liberated from the cycle of birth and some of the ways of reaching liberation. The exalted status of the liberated souls in the crescent-shaped siddha-śilā is stressed by their ornate parasols.

Perfect beings and paths to liberation
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Liberation from the cycle of rebirth is only possible in the third and fourth epochs of each phase.

Liberation in these periods of each phase

English description

Sanskrit term

more unhappy than happy

duṣamā-suṣamā

more happy than unhappy

suṣamā-duṣamā

The current age is the fifth or unhappy stage – duṣamā – of a regressive cycle. It began soon after the death of Māhavīra, the 24th and final Jina of this era. Therefore human beings born in this stage cannot reach liberation.

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