What is time? Is it an illusion?

Vedanta-sutra describes the nature of time. Veda means knowledge and anta means the end, so Vedanta means the final conclusion of knowledge. Vedanta-sutra is the final conclusion of the Vedas, written by the compiler of the Vedas himself - Srila Vyasadeva. A sutra is a compressed aphorism, or a code, so Vedanta-sutra is very difficult to grasp without proper guidance.


Sri Jiva Goswami, a great saint in the Gaudiya Vaishnava line from the 1500s, has written a treatise on Vedanta-sutra called Sat Sandarbha. Here he writes that real knowledge must necessarily describe all aspects of reality.

According to everyone's experience, there are three features of observable reality. In Bhagavad-gita Krishna calls these - the knower, the known and knowledge. In modern terms the knower can be translated into the observer, the known into that which is observed, and knowledge translates into the process, or method, by which something is observed.

Vedanta provides a working model that enables a student to scientifically study these three aspects of reality. Any science that does not scientifically describe the totality of reality as experienced by humans, is only a relative science, and relative knowledge cannot connect us with reality as it is.

So to understand reality as it is, the first thing we have to do is to break with the modern paradigm that holds empirical research to be the only rational way to study reality. In Vedanta real knowledge is defined as sat or truth, and truth doesn’t change. The truth is always true – eternally so. Otherwise it would not be the truth. So seen in the light of eternal truth, that which in the modern scientific outlook is hailed as adaptable knowledge that will change as new information emerge, is in fact nothing but ignorance.

To further shed light on the difference between knowledge and ignorance Vedanta defines these in terms of their relation with time. In Bhagavad Gita Krishna, quoting the seers of the truth, says that only that which is constant or eternal can be said to really exist.

Everything else, because of being temporary, is illusory, and thus, from a perspective of eternity, non-existent. He specifically relates this, real and illusory, to the self and the body. Thus, to gain real knowledge, one has to study that which is eternal. Knowledge of the temporary doesn’t count as real knowledge.

The Vedanta Sutra, the philosophical treatise on Vedic knowledge written by the author of the Vedas himself, namely Srila Vysadeva, opens with the sutra - atato brahma jijnasa – meaning now that we have been awarded with this human form of life it is time to learn about Brahman, or the eternal.

Factually, human reality does not consist of physical and chemical reactions. We have no experience of how molecules and atoms form the basis of our reality. The interactions on the micro-level are completely invisible to the naked eye. Rather human reality consists of our perception of the world, and our perception of the world consists of our mental processes in the form of thinking, feeling and willing along with intelligent discrimination.

A science like the modern empirical one, which does not enable the human to understand the subtle, psychic processes of nature, as they take place in the mind, is thus insufficient to give us a full picture of the world.

So how can we study the eternal? What object of study within our experience is eternal? This is of course the consciousness within, or the self – the observer. It is noteworthy that in the empiric system of knowledge only that which lies outside the self, namely matter, is the object of study. But matter is constantly changing. We live in a body that is changing from boyhood to youth to old age and finally death.

This is where Vedanta is superior to any other epistemology. In Vedanta, rather than absorbing its student in studying the outside world, which is ever changing, the student is guided to the only constant or eternal subject matter within his reach, namely the self within. The only constant factor in everyone’s experience of reality, is his own I-feeling -the consciousness within.

Everything else - the body, the mind, wife, children, home, the dog, society, and the rest - changes. If the knowledge acquired by the student deals only with the two changing aspects of nature, namely matter, and the science to study matter, it neglects the most important aspect of reality, which is consciousness or the observing faculty of existence.

And sad to say there is no department within the modern educational institutions that are equipped or even willing to scientifically deal with the element of consciousness. All the knowledge taught in the modern world is speculative and relative and thus in the mode of ignorance.

It may be a fact that I am sitting in the front of a computer typing this text, but because it is not a constant fact – it will for instance not be true 10, 20 or 100 years from now, it cannot be said to be a real fact. Real facts are eternally so.

If something is true it is true now, tomorrow, the day after, and eternally hereafter. If a perceived fact turns out to not be true as new information emerges, it means it wasn’t true to begin with, no amount of information can make it true now. So knowledge of temporary matter is not in the same category as knowledge of the immovable soul. One is relative the other is absolute.

Thus we see how in Vedanta the elements of knowledge and ignorance are treated according to their relationship to time. In time matter changes, and so does the knowledge concerning it, but consciousness exists outside of time. Therefore the only initial object worthy of study is the eternal self that dwells within the body. Only by connecting first with our own selves and then the self with the Super-self or God can we actually experience this timeless, eternal existence.

Otherwise, if we remain disconnected from our real selves, being absorbed only in the ever changing bodily and mental urges, we will remain victims of time, i.e. we will soon be dead. Sometimes, in the novels, a character will heroically proclaim, “I survived!” or, “You saved my life,” but these are false and misleading statements, for no one survives. Time kills everyone, but knowledge about the self within can help us transcend time and become re-established in our real selves as eternal servants of God.

The science to study the self and God and their respective relation to nature is called bhakti-yoga, and in this age, by the mercy Krishna’s most recent avatar has been made very easy to practice. Simply by the reciting or chanting or meditating upon the great mantra for deliverance:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rame Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

One can come to a scientific understanding of himself, God and nature.

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