In the cosmology of Hinduism, the term Yuga (meaning: "age" or "epoch") refers to a specific division of time in the ongoing flow of cosmic history. For Hindus, time is measured in terms of cycles called Kalpas (cosmic round), Mahayugas (great ages) and yugas (ages). Each great age of the cosmos is divided into four smaller eras: 1) Satya Yuga (Golden Age), 2) Treta Yuga (Silver Age), 3) Dvapara Yuga (Bronze Age) and 4) Kali Yuga (Dark Age). Since the Hindu notion of time is circular rather than linear, the universe is considered to be in a continual flow through these four periods of time. As time progresses from stage to stage, human society degrades to a level lower than before, culminating in the destruction of the existing order at the end of the Kali Yuga. After this, the blissful Satya Yuga begins anew. According to the prevailing Hindu calculations, we are currently living in the Kali Yuga (Dark Age).
In Hinduism, the devolution from the Satya Yuga to the Kali Yuga is associated with a progressive deterioration of dharma (or "righteousness"), manifested by a pronounced decrease in the quality of human moral standards and religious piety. While temples, wars, and religious scriptures are unnecessary in the earlier yugas, they come to characterize the later Dvapara and Kali yugas. Not only is the descent of the yugas said to be marked by societal degeneration, but also by a pronounced decrease in the length and quality of human life.
Many of the world's religions teach that humanity originally sprang from a "Golden Age" that was then followed by a "fall" (deterioration of human morality and relationship with the Divine). The Abrahamic religions speak of an original paradise in the Garden of Eden in which humanity is said to have first lived, while Hinduism's corresponding idea of "Golden Age" is the Satya Yuga. Intriguingly, the various world religions also widely suggest that humanity will eventually return one day to a pristine state of restoration following a long period of moral decadence and societal degeneration. In this way, the Hindu concept of Yuga offers a compelling teleological version of time and human agency.
The traditional timescale of the yugas suggests that the Satya Yuga lasts 1,728,000 years, the Treta Yuga 1,296,000 years, the Dvapara Yuga 864,000 years and the Kali Yuga 432,000 years. As this list indicates, each yuga is progressively shorter. In total, a complete cycle constitutes 4,320,000 years, a period of time which is known as a mahayuga (or "great Yuga"). One thousand mahayugas are said to constitute a day in the life of the creator god Brahma, also known as a kalpa, which is the fundamental cosmic cycle in Hinduism.
A synopsis of each of the four classical Yugas (ages) in Hindu cosmology is provided below:
The Satya Yuga (सत्य युग), alternatively called the Sat Yuga and Krita Yuga, is not only the first but also the foremost of the Hindu divisions of time, not unlike the Golden Age in Greek mythology. The Dharma bull stands steadily on all four legs during this period. The Satya Yuga is the consummate "Yuga of Truth," wherein humankind is governed by gods, and every manifestation or work performed by human beings resembles the purest ideal of the divine. This epoch is characterized by a harmonious, pious society, and no evil or hatred is said to exist whatsoever. There are no class divisions between rich and poor, nor is their any need for labor or a system of commerce since all is available in abundance by the power of the will. People are not stricken with disease in this period, nor do they age. All the pillars of religion such as knowledge and penance are present in totality in this age, though meditation (dyana) is the virtue accorded highest value. Ashrams, meanwhile, are devoid of any wickedness and deceit. As such, the great majority of the people alive in this age are able to experience spirituality by direct intuitive realization of truth, and the cleavage between the material and the transcendent realms is essentially transparent. Writing is unnecessary because people communicate directly by way of their thoughts; as are temples, since people continually feel the omnipresence of God. Matsya (the fish), Kurma (the turtle), Varaha (the boar) and Narasimha (the man-lion), the first four incarnations of Vishnu, appear in this epoch.
While the Treta Yuga (त्रेता युग) saw a slight decline in the overall quality of life, it was still a glorious age in itself. The Dharma bull stood on three legs during this period. Treta Yuga was most prominently the mental age, in which psychic power was harnessed. Many inventions resulted from this power, which were used to dissolve the illusion of time. As in the Satya Yuga, religion still flourished, and fittingly the virtue accorded highest value in this epoch is yajna (sacrifice). This Yuga saw the incarnation of the first human avatars of Vishnu: Vamana, Parashurama, and Rama, respectively. Although this age was not usually marked by warfare, it was during this time period when the war that is recounted in the Ramayana allegedly occurred, wherein Rama conquered the evil King Ravana.
The Dvapara Yuga (द्वापर युग) is described as seeing the first drastic decline in righteousness of humanity. The dharma bull now only stands only on two legs, so the overall moral standard of the people in the Dvapara Yuga drops immensely. In this age, adherence to the Vedas becomes less acute and the Vedas are divided into the four parts that we know today as the Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva Vedas. More seriously, the Caste system of the varnas is neglected during this time, along with the Yajnas (sacrifices).
People living in the Dvapara Yuga were zealous, valiant, courageous and competitive by nature. Further, they were cosmopolitan and pleasure-seeking, and so the divine intellect ceased to exist, and it was therefore seldom that anyone was wholly truthful. Because of this life of deceit, the living standard also decreased in the Dvapara Yuga, with the average life expectancy of humans falling to only 2,000 years. People were plagued by ailments, diseases and all sorts of desires. After suffering from these ailments, some people came to realize their misdeeds and performed penance. Along with charity, religious activity did not go much beyond this in the Dvapara Yuga. While some did attempt to organize sacrifices, they did so out of ostentation, mostly seeking material benefits rather than meaningful connection with the divine. The virtue accorded the highest value in this epoch was archana (worship).
Despite these discouraging trends, the Dvapara Yuga was also characterized by some more positive elements. Science flourished during this time period, and people experienced the spiritual in terms of subtle energies and rational choices. As in the Treta Yuga, inventions were once again abundant, particularly those that dissolved the illusion of distance between people and between things. Further, this age played host to the events described in the great Mahabharata epic, including the incarnation of the beloved deity Krishna (Vishnu's eighth avatar) and his subsequent participation in the battle between the righteous Pandavas and their corrupt counterparts the Kauravas. Included in this work is the Bhagavadgita, the single most popular set of teachings in Hinduism, wherein Krishna unravels the nature of the universe for the pensive Pandava warrior Arjuna. According to the Puranas this yuga ended at the moment when Krishna died and returned to his eternal abode of Vaikuntha.
The Kali Yuga (कली युग), which is said to have begun on January 23rd 3102 B.C.E., is the phase in which we currently exist according to most interpretations of Hindu scriptures. This is often referred to as the "Age of Darkness," because people are as distant from the divine as is possible. Now the Dharma bull has only one leg upon which to stand, as morality has been reduced to only a quarter of that of the Satya Yuga. According to the Hindu tradition, most people in this age are materialistic, concerned only with empirical aspects of reality, and the predominant emphasis of their existence is placed upon physical survival. Dishearteningly, most peoples' relationships with the spiritual realm are governed by superstition and authority. The virtue accorded highest value in this epoch is daana (alms).
Various Puranas (such as the Bhagavata and Vishnu Purana) give lists of symptoms that characterize the Kali Yuga. For instance, it is said rulers will become unreasonable, no longer seeing it as their duty to promote spirituality or to protect their subjects, and will begin levying taxes unfairly. These same rulers will feud amongst themselves. As a result, people will start migrating, seeking countries where wheat and barley form the staple food source. Avarice and wrath will be common traits among people, and human beings will openly display animosity towards one another. People will no longer follow the science of reason and will instead be led by their emotions. Gurus will no longer be respected, and in their place disreputable individuals will claim to teach the truth. Lust will become socially acceptable, and intercourse will be venerated as the central purpose of existence. On the whole the Kali Yuga will be marked by widespread ignorance of dharma, and virtue will fade to be eventually lost entirely. As a result of their unrighteousness, humans will over the course of this age become shorter in height and weaker physically, mentally and spiritually. The Vishnu Purana summarizes the turmoil of the Kali Yuga most succinctly in the following passage:
At that time there will be monarchs reigning over the earth; kings of churlish spirit, violent, and even addicted to falsehood and wickedness (…) Wealth and piety will decrease day by day, until the world will be wholly depraved. Then property alone will confer rank; wealth will be the only source of devotion; Passion will be the sole bond of union between the sexes (…) and women will be objects merely of sensual gratification. (IV: 24).
The Kali Yuga is personified by the demon Kali (not be confused with the Hindu goddess Kali), the source of evil who oversees the final phase of humanity's chaos. At the end of the cycle, the demon Kali, however, will be defeated in a climactic apocalyptic battle by Kalkin, the tenth and final avatar of Vishnu, who will then reestablish the righteous order of dharma, thus beginning a new Satya Yuga.
Hinduism often conceives of dharma as comparable with a bull. In the Satya Yuga, the golden age of time, the bull stands steadily upon four legs. During each of the yugas that follow, the bull stands on one less leg as human morality deteriorates by a quarter.
The four Yugas have also been represented by human values in that given age. The Satya Yuga has been symbolized by a man carrying a small piece of a wooden pot (or, in Sanskrit, kamandalu). The Treta Yuga is symbolized by a man carrying a Cow and an Anchor. The Dvapara Yuga is represented by a man carrying a bow and axe (or Parashu). Most strikingly, the Kali Yuga is symbolized by an unsightly naked man who grips his genitals in a lascivious gesture.
If the above descriptions are observed carefully, one realizes that these symbolizations not only suggest the moral devolution of human society, but also its technological advancements. In the first yuga there is a development of pottery, language and sacrificial rituals. The second yuga sees the development and mastery of agriculture. The third yuga witnesses the development of sophisticated weaponry whereby the agricultural society, which has now come to live in territorial groups, and their generated wealth, needs to be protected. The last yuga suggests the complete anarchy which develops out of a society which has become dependent on the ubiquity of its technology and has thusly shirked religious practice. At the height of its atheistic cosmopolitanism, humanity has in the Kali Yuga given up on the values from which it originally grew, a circumstance which Hinduism considers to be the last phase in the cycle of the universe.
Not all agree with this traditional timescale. According to Sri Yukteswar Giri, guru of Paramahansa Yogananda, the traditional view is based on miscalculations made by astronomers and astrologers. Since no one wanted to announce the bad news of the beginning of the ascending Kali Yuga, these individuals continually added years to the Dwapara date. In his book, The Holy Science, Sri Yukteswar explains that the descending phase of Satya Yuga lasts only 4800 years, Treta Yuga 3600 years, Dwapara Yuga 2400 years, and Kali Yuga 1200 years. The ascending phase of Kali Yuga then begins, lasting another 1200 years, leading into the Dwapara Yuga and so on. According to Sri Yukteswar Giri, the ascending phase of Kali Yuga began in September of 499 C.E. So it follows that we have been in the ascending phase of Dwapara Yuga since September of 1699.
David Frawley, an astrologer and author of many books on Vedic traditions, provides a similar revision of the traditional timescale. His reinterpretation is based on the writings of Manu, who, in his Manhu Samhita, posits a much shorter Yuga cycle of 2,400 years. Manu’s Yuga cycle happens to correspond roughly to the same length of time that astronomers attribute to the Precession of the Equinoxes. As with Sri Yukteswar, Frawley’s interpretation of scripture suggests that we are currently near the beginning of a Dwapara Yuga cycle that will last a total of 2,400 years. He further points out that that the traditional 432,000 year cycle is questionable, based on Vedic and Puranic historical records. He explains that the shorter yuga theory offers better proof of the age of Rama and Krishna and other important historical Indian figures than other dating methods, which conceive of some of these figures to be millions of years old; far too old to place them within the accepted chronology of human history on Earth.
Evidence exists to support both Frawley and Sri Yukteswar's theories: For example, humans are becoming taller in height, more intelligent, and are living longer. These findings stand in direct contrast to some of the objective criteria said to characterize the Kali Yuga (see below), and seem to better characterize the ascending phase of the cosmic cycle.
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