Significance of Epochs & Eras

via V.N. Gopalakrishnan published on January 17, 2010

The Republic of India has adopted the Gregorian calendar for its secular life whereas its Hindu religious life continues to be governed by the traditional Hindu calendar. This calendar, based primarily on the lunar revolutions, is adapted to solar reckoning. The oldest system, in many respects the basis of the classical one, is known from texts of about 1000 BC. It divides an approximate solar year of 360 days into 12 lunar months of 27 days according to Taittiriya Samhita or 28 days, according to Atharva Veda.

Not before the first century BC, is there any evidence that the years of events were recorded in well-defined eras. Perhaps under outside influence, the recording of eras was begun at various times, but without universal appeal and few have remained influential. Among them and the most commonly used are the Vikrama era (begun 58 BC), the Saka era (78 AD), the Gupta era (320 AD), and the Harsha era (606 AD). All these were dated from some significant historical events.

The Saka Era, a traditional era of Indian chronology, is said to have begun with King Salivahana’s accession to the throne, and is the reference for most astronomical works in Sanskrit literature written after 500 AD. Indian calendar set up by the Calendar Reform Committee began with Saka era, Chaitra 1, 1879, which corresponds to March 22, 1957. The Vikram era, believed to have begun with the coronation of King Vikramaditya. The year 2010 AD corresponds to 2068 in this system. The Kali era is thought to have started either at the dawn on February 18, 3102 or at midnight between February 17 and 18 at that year.
Various Hindu calendars are based on eras and epochs and they generally follow the lunar year consists of 12 lunar months. About 30 calendars were used for arriving at the dates of various religious festivals among Hindus, Buddhist and Jains. They were mostly based on the astronomical practices of local priests and kalnirnayaks or calendar makers. The Muslims followed the Islamic calendar, and the Gregorian calendar was used for administrative purposes by the government.

According to Hindu scriptures, all mortal beings are destined to pass through four great epochs in every cycle of creation and destruction. This divine cycle turns full-circle at the end of Kalpa. A Kalpa is a Yuga cycle, which is a period of 10,000 divine years, and is divided into four Yugas (Ages) viz. Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapar Yuga, Dwapar Yuga, and Kali Yuga. Satya Yug or the Age of Truth is said to last for 4,000 divine years, Treta Yuga for 3,000, Dwapara Yug for 2,000 and Kali Yuga will last for 1,000 divine years that equals to 432,000 earthly years. According to one calculation, one Yuga cycle is estimated to be 4,320,000 years, and one Kalpa 4,320,000,000 years.

It is also believed that three of these great ages have already passed away, and we are now living in the fourth one. Another theory explains these epochs of time on the basis of the degree of loss of righteousness in the world. Evil and dishonesty has replaced truth in the last three Yugas.

The Hindu calendar called the Panchang is indispensable in calculating the dates of festivals, and auspicious days for performing various rituals. It was initially based on the movements of the moon. In the first few centuries A.D., Babylonian and Greek astronomical ideas reformed the Indian calendar systems. Most religious festivals and auspicious occasions are decided on the basis of lunar movements.

The Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar, was the one used in Europe throughout medieval times and in many countries until the 19th century. Astronomers use a simple counting of days elapsed since noon, Monday, January 1, 4,713 B.C. on the Julian calendar. The number of days elapsed is called the Julian day number or the Astronomical day number. The Hebrew calendar is used by tradition in the Jewish religion and the Emacs calendar program uses the Hebrew calendar to determine the dates of Jewish holidays. Hebrew calendar dates begin and end at sunset.

The Islamic calendar is used in many Islamic countries. The precise dates of Islamic holidays often depend on proclamation by religious authorities and hence the actual dates of observance vary slightly from the dates computed by Emacs. Islamic calendar dates begin and end at sunset. The French Revolutionary calendar was created by the Jacobins after the 1789 revolution but the French government abandoned this calendar at the end of 1805. The Ethiopian calendar is identical in structure, but has different year numbers and month names. The Persians use a Solar calendar based on a design of Omar Khayyam. The Chinese calendar is a system of lunar months arranged into solar years.
Throughout the four Yugas, Lord Vishnu is said to incarnate 10 times in 10 different Avatars (incarnations) known as ‘Dasavatara’.

During the Satya Yuga (Age of Truth), human beings were spiritually most advanced and had great psychic powers. In the Treta Yuga people still remained righteous and adhered to moral ways of life. Lord Rama lived in Treta Yuga. In the Dwapara Yuga, men had lost all knowledge of the intelligence and bliss bodies. Lord Krishna was born in this age.. Veda Vyasa has stated: “In the Kali Yuga, the duties of the respective order disappear and men become afflicted by inequity.” However, the scriptures say that the final emancipation is possible only in this age.

(The author is a social activist and is Director, Indo-Gulf consulting. He can be contacted on [email protected])

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