by Swami Krishnananda
Space is the condition of externality, time the process of continuance of being. We know the world as contained in space, as existing in time. There is no world without space and time, and no idea of our living as human beings can ever arise except in terms of space and time. The two are fundamental for all experience, and life is unimaginable without the concepts of extension and period. It would appear from the nature of things that a knowledge of space and time would necessarily provide an insight into the nature of the world as a whole. The importance of this proposition becomes evident when we envisage the utter impossibility of the very concept of being, as far as we are concerned, except on the presupposition of the idea of space and time. Even thought becomes abortive when it is forced to operate without the postulation of these limiting conditions prior to the attempt at thinking, or a least simultaneously with it. The world is often identified with the time-process and is indistinguishable from the notion of mass and dimension. Perhaps the world is what we understand by space and can be explained when the meaning of time is correctly understood. But what are space and time?
The Yogavasishtha, which abounds in an extensive treatment of the nature of the world in terms of space and time, propounds the amazing doctrine that space and time are not realities in themselves but appearances relative to experience. It teaches that space and time are ultimately constructions of thought and are dependent on thought. One cannot conceive of space and time when the functions of the mind are inhibited, or where no consciousness seems to operate. It is possible for different persons existing in different orders of reality to experience the same world as being possessed of different space-time significance. The reality of space and time, and the stability, order and meaning of the things of the world change, according to the Yogavasishtha, in different space-time realms. There can be no experience of space without the individualisation of consciousness. Space is a mode of perception by the individualised observer. Where individuality is not, space also is not. The perception of space is relative to the activity of the mind. Under different conditions, different orders of space can be perceived by the same mind. Even a small area of space can appear to the mind, under certain circumstances, as a vast extension, or a kingdom itself. The mind in the state of dream, for example, experiences a universe with its own space and time. The dream world has all the characters and structural qualities of the waking world, and yet the two realms are different from each other. We also know that, even in this world, the mind can perceive a thing as what it is not. Two-dimensional pictures can be made to rouse the idea of a three-dimensional region of great immensity. The mind can project forth space in accordance with the condition in which it is. The idea of time, again, is dependent on the idea of space. In fact, the concepts of space and time rise simultaneously, and as spatial characters are relative to states of mind, so are time characters. A moment of time can appear to the mind as a long universal cycle, and the latter, again, can appear to it as a moment under certain given conditions. Whatever is the nature of the objective condition to which consciousness is related, that alone appears to it as reality. When consciousness is switched on to the idea of a moment, even an age can be passed as a moment, while, when it is identified with the idea of a long period of time, even a moment can be experienced as such. The nature of the experience of space and time depends upon the manner in which the consciousness happens to be objectively modalised. Persons who are in a depressed state of mind or who are in deep sorrow are apt to feel that a moment of time is like a year, while those who revel in happiness would feel the contrary. Space and time are ultimately conditions of consciousness and are not independent of it. In the dreaming state experiences ranging over thousands of years can be undergone in a moment’s time, while, at the same time, the mind in this state can also project a moment’s experience into a history of several years. In the state of intense spiritual contemplation and Samadhi, space and time are transcended, and only pure consciousness reveals itself. In this consciousness the entire universal cycle is said to appear and disappear within the millionth part of a moment. Space is the way in which the mind knows things as having extension, and time is the feeling of the succession of internal states reacting to those of events outside.
The relativity of space and time, the ultimate ideal character of the world and the presence of worlds within worlds are picturesquely illustrated in the following remarkable story narrated in the Yogavasishtha:
There was a king called Padma who ruled over this earth. He had a queen, by name Lila. Due to her intense devotion to her lord, Lila wished that her husband should be exempted from death. With this in view she once invited the wise men of the city and questioned them as regards the possibility of freeing her husband from mortality. The wise men’s reply was that no one in the world can ever be free from the clutches of death, for all that is born is bound to die. Disappointed at this, Lila began to propitiate the goddess Sarasvati. The goddess, being pleased, asked Lila what she wanted from her as a boon. Lila said in reply that, if her husband was to quit his body before her own demise, his soul might remain within her own room even after its departure, and not go outside anywhere. The goddess granted the boon and, adding that she would be present before Lila any time she thought of her, disappeared from sight. In course of time, the death of Padma occurred, and Lila was sunk in sorrow. A voice from an invisible source proclaimed to Lila that there was no need to grieve over her husband’s death, that his soul was inside her own room, and that his body should be preserved well until the time when his soul would vivify it again. Lila felt happy, meditated on the goddess Sarasvati, and instantly Sarasvati appeared before her. Lila questioned the goddess as to where her husband was living at that time. The goddess answered that the soul of Padma was within the room, but in a different world of space and time, which was subtler than this present world in which Lila was living. The goddess explained to Lila the way in which worlds exist within worlds, interpenetrating but without affecting one another. The one is absent to the other, though the one may exist within the other. But one who wishes to have a knowledge of the other worlds may, by extraordinary powers, obtain it. Hearing this, Lila cherished a desire to see personally the world in which her husband was living after his death. The goddess provided Lila with the necessary psychic equipment with which to enter the subtler realm and perceive the objects and events there as its denizen.
The goddess Sarasvati and Lila, by supernatural powers, entered the world of Padma, which he had gained as a result of his previous Karmas. Sarasvati and Lila, when they entered the new world, found that the king was sixteen years old and was ruling over a vast kingdom of his own, though Padma had died only a few hours before their arrival in this new kingdom. Lila was wonderstruck to have this marvellous experience, for she could not understand how one could be sixteen years old within the period of a few hours and how a vast kingdom could exist within the limited space in a room. Sarasvati tried to dispel the doubts of Lila by explaining to her that worlds can exist even in an atom, that space and time are not limited to any single order of perception, that there are different spaces and times and that there are different worlds of different kinds, each governed by the special laws of its own space and time. The events that take place in a moment in a particular world may occur in a long universal cycle in some other world. In dream, one may experience the vicissitudes of a whole life in a moment. The same rule applies to other worlds also. Lila was in a state of consternation when she heard such startling things, but Sarasvati increased her dismay by telling her that she and her husband Padma were actually a Brahmin couple reborn after the latter’s death which occurred only eight days before at some other place. And during this week Padma had ruled over his kingdom for fifty years and died. Sarasvati added that there was a Brahmin called Vasishtha living with his wife Arundhati. One day, the Brahmin happened to witness the procession of a king and developed a desire in his mind to enjoy the pleasures of a king. It so happened that the Brahmin died the same day, leaving the desire unfulfilled. The Brahmin’s wife had received a boon that the soul of her husband, in case he died before her, should not go outside her house, and that she should live with her husband forever. Stricken with grief, Arundhati entered the funeral pyre of her husband and burnt herself. Sarasvati said that all this happened only eight days ago, and that Vasishtha and Arundhati were reborn as Padma and Lila. The kingdom of Padma and Lila was then declared to be within the house of Vasishtha and Arundhati, and the new kingdom of Padma after his death to be within the room of Lila. What could be more terrifying to Lila than this? Sarasvati, in order to verify the facts in the presence of Lila, took her to the realm in which Vasishtha and Arundhati lived, where they saw the sons of the Brahmin couple wailing over the deaths of their parents. Lila actually saw the house of the Brahmin family and was informed by those then present that the death of the pious couple took place only a week ago. Lila developed immediately a desire to know all her previous births, and by the grace of Sarasvati she obtained this knowledge of her entire past history beginning from creation itself.
Sarasvati and Lila then returned to the kingdom of Viduratha, which was the name of Padma as king after his rebirth. To the surprise of Lila, Viduratha was found to be seventy years old then. He had married a queen, by name Lila. Due to his intense desire to live with his consort, Padma, in his present birth, too, obtained a queen of the same name, with the same qualities. Sarasvati and Lila called Viduratha in private and reminded him of his previous life as Padma. The king, due to his knowledge of his past birth, wished to become Padma again, and his present queen, who may be called Lila II, also wished to follow Viduratha in his future life as well, and asked for a boon to that effect from Sarasvati. After a time, the kingdom of Viduratha was invaded by enemies and there was a fierce battle fought between the contending armies. In the battle, Viduratha was killed, and his soul which had not gone out of the room of Lila I, entered the corpse of Padma, and there Padma rose up again as the ruler of his previous kingdom. He began to have the consciousness of the new realm and found also the two Lilas standing before him as his queens, whom he had obtained as a result of the intensity of his desires. Padma then lived happily as a king with the two Lilas as his queens. The life of Viduratha, extending over seventy years, was lived in a single day after the death of Padma.
This story is intended to illustrate the fact that spaces and times are many and are related to their experiencer. All our experiences are the results of our previous desire-impressions. One’s birth, death and the environment in which one lives are all the direct consequences of the patterns of one’s desires. There is no such thing as a static and unconditioned world which can be valid for all people and for all times. The reactions to one’s previous actions—mental, verbal or physical—materialise themselves as conditions of objective experience for the agent of those actions. Each one’s world is made up of his own desires, though the material of that world may be drawn from any objective realm which may be equally real to many others who, too, happen to be born in that world due to the similarity of conditions which they are expected to experience.
The philosopher Kant thought that space and time are empirically real and transcendentally ideal. The ideas of space and time are, according to him, required to give form and order to the manifold of sensations which are not presented in an ordered form. Space and time are perceptual categories, they are the necessary conditions of all perception. Space is said to represent and determine the form of external perception, while time represents and determines the perception of internal states. They are empirically real, for they constitute not mere forms of perception but actual perceptions themselves. They are the sense-data which, with the structure of the understanding, make all definite human knowledge possible. They are transcendentally ideal, for they are ultimately a priori forms of perception and are contributed somehow by the nature of the sensibility and the understanding. The view of Kant seems to be that space and time have a meaning only from the point of view of individuals, though they are universal in the sense that they are valid also for other minds.