Yuga in Hinduism is an epoch or era within a four-age cycle. A complete Yuga starts with the Satya Yuga, via Treta Yuga and Dvapara Yuga into a Kali Yuga. Our present time is a Kali Yuga, which started at 3102 BCE with the end of the Kurukshetra War (or Mahabharata war).
According to Hindu scriptures and mythology, the universe as we know it is destined to pass through four great epochs, each of which is a complete cycle of cosmic creation and destruction. This divine cycle completes its full-circle at the end of what is known as a Kalpa, or epoch.
Hindu mythology deals with numbers large enough to be nearly impossible to imagine. A Kalpa itself is said to be comprised of a thousand cycles of four yugas, or ages—each of a different quality.
By one estimate, a single yuga cycle is said to be 4.32 million years, and a Kalpa is said to consist of 4.32 billion years.
In Hinduism Time is not linear, but cyclical, just as the days and nights, seasons, months and years. Because of Time, creation itself becomes cyclical and repetitive, with each cycle having a beginning and an end, and progressive phases of evolution and involution. While we cannot predict the events on the timeline of the earth or the cosmos, we can predict the recurring events of Time such as days and nights, months, years, seasons, the movements of the sun, moon and stars, and so on.
Durations of the four Yugas
The Puranas divide each cycle of creation into four divisions or epochs, called Yugas. Together, they constitute one Mahayuga (great epoch). Each Yuga has a specific time frame, a definite purpose and certain characteristic features which distinguish it from the others. Their sequence is fixed. The time frame of each Yuga varies. According to the Laws of Manu, which was the earliest known text describing the four yugas in detail, the length of each Yuga is as follows:
4800 years + 3600 years + 2400 years + 1200 years, which equals 12,000 years. This figure denotes only a half cycle and hence, the entire cycle takes 24,000 years to complete. This is also one precession of the equinox.
There is no clear mention here of the exact span of a year of life for demigods. However, the most recent interpretation of the Shrimad Bhagavatam seems to indicate that the duration of the Satya Yuga is equivalent to about 4,800 years of the demigods; the duration of the Dvapara Yuga is about 2,400 years; and that of the Kali Yuga is about 1,200 years of the demigods. Hence, one could probably infer from these statistics that one year of a demigod would be the equivalent of about 360 human years.
This would also lead us to believe that the Satya Yuga lasted for 4,800×360, that is, about 1,728,000 years. The Treta Yuga, on the other hand, went on for 3,600×360 years, which works out to 1,296,000 years. Similarly, the Dvapara Yuga continued for 2,400×360, that is, 864,000 years. The Kali Yuga is supposed to be the shortest of them all, lasting for only 1,200×360 years, which totals to 432,000 years. From the aforementioned statistic, it can be understood that the four Yugas follow a timeline ration of 4:3:2:1.
As mentioned earlier, each subsequent age is witness to a gradual decline of wisdom, knowledge, intellect, life span, physical and spiritual strength in humankind as a whole. This automatically also implies decline and destruction of dharma or righteousness.
Dharma reigned supreme at this time, with human stature being estimated at 21 cubits. The average human lifespan at this point in time was 100,000 years.
This Yuga witnessed the decline of virtue to a quarter of the previous one. Human stature was valued at 14 cubits and average human lifespan was 10,000 years.
Virtue and sin were divided into equal halves. Normal human stature was 7 cubits and human lifespan went down to 1000 years.
This Yuga has only one quarter virtue and the rest is taken over by sin. Human stature is reduced to 3.5 cubits and average human lifespan is about 100 years. It is believed that, towards the end of this terrible Dark Age, average human lifespan would go down to 20 years.
Amongst the four era’s, the Satya Yuga is the first and the most significant one. This era began on Sunday, Vaishakh Shukla Tritiya day which is also known as Akshaya Tritiya. This extends up to 17, 28,000 years. God incarnated in four forms i.e. Matsya, Kurma, Varaha and Narsimha in this era. Knowledge, meditation and penance would hold special importance in this era. The average height of people was more than what it is today. Every king would attain the pre-determined attainments and would experience bliss. All the four pillars of religion i.e. truth, penance, yagna (religious sacrifice) and charity were present in totality. The only text which was considered credible and was followed was Manu’s Dharma Shastra. Satya Yuga shall be established by Kalki again after the Kali Yuga.
At the end of this era when the Sun, Moon, Jupiter together enter Pushya Nakshtra that is the Cancer Zodiac then the Satya Yuga shall begin. During this time the stars/constellations shall become auspicious and radiant. As a result it shall accrue in the wellbeing of all creatures and the health will ameliorate. It is during this auspicious time that Vishnu’s Incarnation Kalki shall take birth in a Brahmin family. After this all the generations to come shall follow the ideals established by Bhagwan Kalki and shall engage in religious activities. Accordingly on the advent of the Satya Yuga all people shall engage assiduously in good, sublime deeds.
One shall witness the emergence of beautiful gardens, Dharmasthanas (Resting Inns) and majestic temples. One shall see the execution of many a huge yagyas. Brahmins, sages, ascetics according to their nature shall be absorbed in penance. Ashrams shall be devoid of the wicked and the deceits. This era shall usher better agriculture and one shall be able to grow all food grains in all seasons. People shall generously donate and will follow all the rules and regulations mentioned. The kings shall protect their subjects and earth very sincerely.
One sees the advent of religious sacrifices i.e. Yagyas in the Treta Yuga. One pillar of the four pillars of religion meets its end. People in this era will be truthful and would perform all the religious ceremonies according to the sacrifices. It is the Treta Yuga where one can see the overtures of Yagyas, religion and allied activities. People would beget desired fruits by performing actions, donations mentioned in the Vedas and by taking resolutions.
All people in this era were assiduous and active. The main religion of Brahmins was truth that is truthful speech, good conduct and love towards all creatures. The common religion of all the Brahmins was Yagyas, self-study and donation. The primary aim of Shudras was service towards Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. The duties of Kshatriyas and Vaishyas were the protection of people and agriculture, trade and poultry respectively. All people would sincerely adhere to their respective duties and as a result they would be blessed with celestial bliss.
The average life expectancy of a human in the Treta Yuga was approximately 3000 years. All the Kshatriyas born in this era were valiant, zealous, big thinkers, pious, truthful, beautiful, suitable to be blessed, revered and the protectors of all people.
There are only two pillars left of religion in the Dwapar Yuga. People were engaged only in penance and charity. They were kingly and pleasure seeking. In this era, the divine intellect ceased to exist, hence seldom anyone would be truthful. Consequently people were plagued by ailments, diseases and various types of desires. After suffering from these ailments people would perform penance. Some would also organize yagna for material benefits as well as for divinity.
The Kshatriyas in this era were humble and performed their duties by controlling their senses. The king would avail to the advice of the learned scholars and accordingly would maintain law and order in his empire. The king who was addicted to vices would definitely end up defeated. Kings were diligent in maintaining public decorum and order.
Kings would plan many a conspiracy surreptitiously along with the scholars. Strong people would execute work where execution of policies was involved. The king would appoint priests etc to perform religious activities, economists and ministers to perform monetary activities, impotent to take care of women and cruel men to execute heinous activities
Brahmins would attain celestial bliss by engaging in penance, religion, control of senses, restraint, yagna etc. Vaishyas would attain higher planes through charity and hospitality. The Kshatriyas would honestly execute all policies of law and order without being angry, cruel and being devoid of greed and consequently attained bliss. All people in this era were zealous, valiant, courageous and competitive by nature.
The duration and chronological starting point in human history of Kali Yuga has given rise to different evaluations and interpretations. According to the Surya Siddhanta, Kali Yuga began at midnight (00:00) on 18 February 3102 BCE in the proleptic Julian calendar, or January 3102 BC in the proleptic Gregorian calendar. This date is also considered by many Hindus to be the day that Krishna left Earth.
Hindus believe that human civilization degenerates spiritually during the Kali Yuga, which is referred to as the Dark Age because in it people are as far away as possible from God. Hinduism often symbolically represents morality (dharma) as a bull. In Satya Yuga, the first stage of development, the bull has four legs, but in each age morality is reduced by one quarter. By the age of Kali, morality is reduced to only a quarter of that of the golden age, so that the bull of Dharma has only one leg.
References in the Mahabharata of Yugas
The Mahabharata War and the decimation of Yadavas thus happened at the Yuga-Sandhi, the point of transition from one Yuga to another. The scriptures mention Sage Narada to have momentarily intercepted the demon Kali on his way to the Earth when Duryodhana was about to be born in order to make him an embodiment of ‘arishadvargas’ and adharma in preparation of the era of decay in values and the consequent havoc.
Most interpreters of Hindu scriptures believe that Earth is currently in Kali Yuga.
Metaphorically, the four Yuga ages may symbolize the four phases of involution during which man gradually lost the awareness of his inner selves and subtle bodies.
Hinduism believes that human beings have five kinds of bodies, known as annamayakosa, pranamayakosa, manomayakosa vignanamayakosa and anandamayakosa, which respectively mean the “gross body,” the “breath body,” the “psychic body,” the “intelligence body,” and the “bliss body.”
Another theory interprets these epochs of time to represent the degree of loss of righteousness in the world.
This theory suggests that during Satya Yuga, only truth prevailed (Sanskrit Satya = truth). During the Treta Yuga, the universe lost one-fourth of the truth, Dwapar lost one-half of the truth, and now the Kali Yuga is left with only one-fourth of the truth. Evil and dishonesty have therefore gradually replaced truth in the last three ages.
Reversing the Time
We can still communicate with out subtle planes and enter those world through deep meditative states. However, it requires discipline and intense spiritual effort. With effort we can reverse the devolution of our spiritual nature and regain our lost spiritual knowledge of the Self, by cultivating detachment from our physical bodies and material possessions and withdrawing our senses into our minds, our minds into intelligence, and our intelligence into the Self which is hidden in each of us. With effort, in just one lifetime we can reverse the devolution of consciousness which happened over four million years and through the four yugas.