"I always look on the bright side," Hagbard Celine was saying to Natalie Drest. "There's only 337,665 years to go in the Kali Yuga, for instance."
- Robert Anton Wilson, Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy
"All that historians recognize as recorded human history is, in fact, only
human history in Kali-yuga. The academic historians' ignorance of the earlier
and incalculably higher Vedic civilization is what we have to expect from
people suffering from the mental retardation imposed by the times."
The date assigned to the beginning of the Kali Yuga, the Hindu age of Kali, is approximately 3000 B.C., roughly the date accepted by historians as the beginning of modern civilization, literacy and urbanization, though there is some confusion about the calculation of time spans expressed in the Vedas. The Kali Yuga is the age of darkness, confusion, aggression, and degradation, in which technology and the exploitation of the different forms of power go hand in hand with selfishness, ignorance, and the barren philosophy of materialism.
There are four Yugas: Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali, and each one represents a decline from the last until, at the end of the Kali Yuga, the cycle turns around and we enter the Satya Yuga, the "Golden Age", once more. A full cycle of four Yugas represents a single day in the life of Brahman, the Vedic Supreme Being or living Universe. Many things suffer a progressive decline from Yuga to Yuga, and they are usually divided into four categories, the four pillars of the Dharma (or spiritual teaching): cleanliness, austerity, mercy and truthfulness. All four of these are fully present in Satya Yuga, and one pillar is removed with each Yuga, so that when the Kali Yuga comes, the only leg left for the Dharma to stand on is truthfulness, and the progression of the Kali Yuga should see even this leg becoming eroded and degraded. By the time the Kali Yuga is reached (and we are now said to have been in it for 5000 years):
It is said that by the end of this Yuga (in approximately 427,000 years, if the Vedic calendar is to be believed), human beings will have a lifespan of 20 years on average, and a diet consisting almost exclusively of meat.
The Vedas state that there the method of enlightenment or God-Realization differs from age to age, and in the Kali Yuga the appropriate method is mantra or sankirtana, the recitation of the names of God, because peoples' intellects have been too degraded and their morals too corrupted to perform any other spiritual practice. At the end of the age the situation will have gotten so bad that Kalki, the final avatar of Vishnu, will descend to Earth in person to sort things out, bringing fire and destruction with him, and precipitating the end of the age. Krishna was the most recent avatar of Vishnu, and his death is said to have marked the beginning of the Kali Yuga.
So much for the bad news. The Hindu doctrine of the Yugas, and the vast timescales involved, is at odds with the discoveries of modern science, and heavily reflects the Hindu idea that this world is imperfect, degraded from a much higher and purer and more spiritual state. Hinduism states that the Vedas are a gift from these higher civilisations, who passed as much of their knowledge down as they could before their age came to an end. This philosophy is at odds with the traditional Western viewpoint, which is one of ever-increasing human achievement and progress, but neither is necessarily wholly correct.
It's true that human technological advancement has not been matched by the general advance of spiritual development, altruism and wisdom, and that the civilized world is riddled with hypocrisy, cruelty and exploitation. However, it is also (in my opinion) true that human culture and self-understanding are advancing. The Vedas do not state that God-Realization and the Dharma are altogether lost in the Kali Yuga, but they do state that a smaller and smaller percentage of people will be able to advance spiritually, which means that there will be an ever-widening gulf between the "wise" or spiritually developed people, and the ignorant, deluded and cruel society in which they exist.
Das Goravani makes an interesting point in relation to how concerned people should act during the Kali Yuga. He says that, in previous ages, it was good and right for people to act in accordance with the mainstream, which he associates with the Sun in astrology (think: The Empire, in Star Wars). However, because the areas influenced by the Sun are so degraded in the Kali Yuga (authority, centrality, the large mainstream structures of human society), people whose natures contain a natural opposition to the centre and the mainstream (in other words, natural rebels - think: The Rebel Alliance) become the 'moral' or good force, where in previous ages their influence was more negative. This is because, in the Kali Yuga, everything is turned upside down.
The Vedas state that there have been many terrible cataclysms on Earth which have wiped out all traces of the preceding, higher human civilizations, and indeed this is a recurring myth or teaching in religions all around the world. Some of the people investigating this correspondence, and trying to piece together an alternative version of human history, have been discredited and made objects of universal ridicule (for example, Erik Von Daniken, who faked some of his research), but others have examined the same legends and artifacts with more rigour and written with more restraint (Graham Hancock and Robert Temple, for example). At the very least, it is clear that our current historical model is incapable of explaining many anomalies which may be consistent with the destruction of previous, advanced human civilisations.
However, it is not necessary to believe this in order to understand the lessons inherent in the Vedic descriptions of the Kali Yuga. The statements made about hypocrisy, ignorance and cruelty, and about the exploitation of the general population by its leaders, are a pretty good description of recorded human history. Personally, I don't believe that human society is in an inevitable decline - I think there are negative and positive things about the human world which are struggling for dominance at the moment, and it is by no means clear which way we are headed. One of the qualities of the Kali Yuga is speed - actions have rapid consequences, and this is something which can be used for good as well as evil. Recently everyone in the world has seen a demonstration of the effect that one person can have on the world with focus, determination and conviction, technology, and cunning rhetoric. The Dalai Lama is an example of the effect that one person can have for good, through truthfulness, kindness, self-awareness and an equal amount of determination.
"If we pursue material advancement at the expense of self-realization, measuring our standard of living only by the gratification of our senses, then we will only get a spiritually and morally debilitated people in control of an intricate and powerful technology--a terrifying combination that leads to horors on a scale we are just beginning to experience."
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