Concepts of Space, Time, and Consciousness in Ancient India- II

Concepts of Space, Time, and Consciousness in Ancient India- II

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Selected Passages From Yoga-Vasistha (YV)

The page numbers given at the end of each passage are from the Venkatesananda (1993) translation. YV consists of 6 books where the sixth book itself has two parts. The numbers in the square brackets refer to the book, (part), section, verse. The reference to the Sanskrit original is also listed in the bibliography.


  • Time cannot be analyzed; for however much it is divided it survives indestructible. [1.23]
  • There is another aspect of this time, the end of action (kṛtānta), according to the law of nature (niyati). [1.25.6-7]
  • The world is like a potter’s wheel: the wheel looks as if it stands still, though it revolves at a terrific speed. [1.27]
  • Just as space does not have a fixed span, time does not have a fixed span either. Just as the world and its creation are mere appearances, a moment and an epoch are also imaginary. [3.20]
  • Infinite consciousness held in itself the notion of a unit of time equal to one-millionth of the twinkling of an eye: and from this evolved the timescale right upto an epoch consisting of several revolutions of the four ages, which is the life-span of one cosmic creation. Infinite consciousness itself is uninvolved in these, for it is devoid of rising and setting (which are essential to all time-scales), and it devoid of a beginning, middle and end. [3.61]


  • There are three types of space—the psychological space, the physical space and the infinite space of consciousness. [3.17] The infinite space of individed consciousness is that which exists in all, inside and outside… The finite space of divided consciousness is that which created divisions of time, which pervades all beings… The physical space is that in which the elements exist. The latter two are not independent of the first. [3.97]
  • Other universes/wormholes. I saw within [the] rock [at the edge of the universe] the creation, sustenance and the dissolution of the universe… I saw innumerable creations in the very many rocks that I found on the hill. In some of these creation was just beginning, others were populated by humans, still others were far ahead in the passage of their times. [6.2.86]
  • I perceived within each molecule of air a whole universe. [6.2.92]


  • In every atom there are worlds within worlds. [3.20]
  • I saw reflected in that consciousness the image of countless universes. I saw countless creations though they did not know of one another’s existence. Some were coming into being, others were perishing, all of them had different shielding atmospheres (from five to thirty-six atmospheres). There were different elements in each, they were inhabited by different types of beings in different stages of evolution.. [In] some there was apparent natural order in others there was utter disorder, in some there was no light and hence no time-sense. [6.2.59]


  • Direct experience alone is the basis for all proofs… That substratum is the experiencing intelligence which itself becomes the experiencer, the act of experiencing, and the experience. [2.19-20]
  • Everyone has two bodies, the one physical and the other mental. The physical body is insentient and seeks its own destruction; the mind is finite but orderly. [4.10]
  • I have carefully investigated, I have observed everything from the tips of my toes to the top of my head, and I have not found anything of which I could say, ‘This I am.’ Who is ‘I’? I am the all-pervading consciousness which is itself not an object of knowledge or knowing and is free from self-hood. I am that which is indivisible, which has no name, which does not undergo change, which is beyond all concepts of unity and diversity, which is beyond measure. [5.52]
  • I remember that once upon a time there was nothing on this earth, neither trees and plants, nor even mountains. For a period of eleven thousand years the earth was covered by lava. In those days there was neither day nor night below the polar region: for in the rest of the earth neither the sun nor the moon shone. Only one half of the polar region was illumined. Then demons ruled the earth. They were deluded, powerful and prosperous, and the earth was their playground. Apart from the polar region the rest of the earth was covered with water. And then for a very long time the whole earth was covered with forests, except the polar region. Then there arose great mountains, but without any human inhabitants. For a period of ten thousand years the earth was covered with the corpses of the demons. [6.1]


  • The same infinite self conceives within itself the duality of oneself and the other. [3.1]
  • Thought is mind, there is no distinction between the two. [3.4]
  • The body can neither enjoy nor suffer. It is the mind alone that experiences. [3.115]
  • The mind has no body, no support and no form; yet by this mind is everything consumed in this world. This is indeed a great mystery. He who says that he is destroyed by the mind which has no substantiality at all, says in effect that his head was smashed by the lotus petal… The hero who is able to destroy a real enemy standing in front of him is himself destroyed by this mind which is [non-material].
  • The intelligence which is other than self-knowledge is what constitutes the mind. [5.14]


  • The absolute alone exists now and for ever. When one thinks of it as a void, it is because of the feeling one has that it is not void; when one thinks of it as not-void, it is because there is a feeling that it is void. [3.10]
  • All fundamental elements continued to act on one another—as experiencer and experience—and the entire creation came into being like ripples on the surface of the ocean. And, they are interwoven and mixed up so effectively that they cannot be extricated from one another till the cosmic dissolution. [3.12]


  • The entire universe is forever the same as the consciousness that dwells in every atom, even as an ornament is non-different from gold. [3.4]
  • The five elements are the seed of which the world is the tree; and the eternal consciousness is the seed of the elements. [3.13]
  • Cosmic consciousness alone exists now and ever; in it are no worlds, no created beings. That consciousness reflected in itself appears to be creation. [3.13]
  • This consciousness is not knowable: when it wishes to become the knowable, it is known as the universe. Mind, intellect, egotism, the five great elements, and the world—all these innumerable names and forms are all consciousness alone. [3.14]
  • The world exists because consciousness is, and the world is the body of consciousness. There is no division, no difference, no distinction. Hence the universe can be said to be both real and unreal: real because of the reality of consciousness which is its own reality, and unreal because the universe does not exist as universe, independent of consciousness. [3.14]
  • Consciousness is pure, eternal and infinite: it does not arise nor cease to be. It is ever there in the moving and unmoving creatures, in the sky, on the mountain and in fire and air. [3.55]
  • Millions of universes appear in the infinite consciousness like specks of dust in a beam of light. In one small atom all the three worlds appear to be, with all their components like space, time, action, substance, day and night. [4.2]
  • The universe exists in infinite consciousness. Infinite consciousness is unmanifest, though omnipresent, even as space, though existing everywhere, is manifest. [4.36]
  • The manifestation of the omnipotence of infinite consciousness enters into an alliance with time, space and causation. Thence arise infinite names and forms. [4.42]
  • Rudra is the pure, spontaneous self-experience which is the one consciousness that dwells in all substances. It is the seed of all seeds, it is the essence of this world-appearance, it is the greatest of actions. It is the cause of all causes and it is the essence of all beings, though in fact it does not cause anything nor is it the concept of being, and therefore cannot be conceived. It is the awareness in all that is sentient, it knows itself as its own object, it is its own supreme object and it is aware of infinite diversity within itself… The infinite consciousness can be compared to the ultimate atom which yet hides within its heart the greatest of mountains. It encompasses the span of countless epochs, but it does not let go of a moment of time. It is subtler than the tip of single strand of hair, yet it pervades the entire universe… It does nothing, yet it has fashioned the universe. ..All substances are non-different from it, yet it is not a substance; though it is nonsubstantial it pervades all substances. The cosmos is its body, yet it has no body. [6.1.36]

The YV model of knowledge

YV is not written as a systematic text. Its narrative jumps between various levels: psychological, biological, and physical. But since the Indian tradition of knowledge is based on analogies that are recursive and connect various domains, one can be certain that our literal reading of the passages is valid.

YV appears to accept the idea that laws are intrinsic to the universe. In other words, the laws of nature in an unfolding universe will also evolve. According to YV, new information does not emerge out of the inanimate world but it is a result of the exchange between mind and matter.

It accepts consciousness as a kind of fundamental field that pervades the whole universe. One might speculate that the parallels between YV and some recent ideas of physics are a result of the inherent structure of the mind.

4 Other Texts

Our readings of the YV are confirmed by other texts such as the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas as they are by the philosophical systems of Sāṃkhya and Vaiśeṣika, or the various astronomical texts.

Here is a reference to the size of the universe from the Mahābhārata 12.182:

The sky you see above is infinite. Its limits cannot be ascertained. The sun and the moon cannot see, above or below, beyond the range of their own rays. There where the rays of the sun and the moon cannot reach are luminaries which are self-effulgent and which possess splendor like that of the sun or the fire. Even these last do not behold the limits of the firmament in consequence of the inaccessibility and infinity of those limits. This space which the very gods cannot measure is full of many blazing and selfluminous worlds each above the other. (Ganguly translation, vol. 9, page 23)

The Mahābhārata has a very interesting passage (12.233), virtually identical with the corresponding material in YV, which describes the dissolution of the world. Briefly, it is stated how a dozen suns burn up the earth, and how elements get transmuted until space itself collapses into wind (one of the elements). Ultimately, everything enters into primeval consciousness.

If one leaves out the often incongrous commentary on these ideas which were strange to him, we find al-Bīrūnī in his encyclopaedic book on India written in 1030 speaking of essentially the same ideas. Here are two little extracts:

The Hindus have divided duration into two periods, a period of motion, which has been determined as time, and a period of rest, which can only be determined in an imaginary way according to the analogy of that which has first been determined, the period of motion. The Hindus hold the eternity of the Creator to be determinable, not measurable, since it is infinite. They do not, by the word creation, understand a formation of something out of nothing. They mean by creation only the working with a piece of clay, working out various combinations and figures in it, and making such arrangements with it as will lead to certain ends and aims which are potentially in it. (Sachau, 1910, vol 1, pages 321-322)

The mystery of consciousness is a recurring theme in Indian texts (Kak, 1997). Unfortunately, the misrepresentation that Indian philosophy is idealistic, where the physical universe is considered an illusion, has become very common. For an authoritative modern exposition of Indian ideas of consciousness one must turn to Aurobindo (e.g. 1939, 1956).

Concluding Remarks

It appears that Indian understanding of physics was informed not only by astronomy and terrestrial experiments but also by speculative thought and by meditations on the nature of consciousness. Unfettered by either geocentric or anthropocentric views, this understanding unified the physics of the small with that of the large within a framework that included metaphysics.

This was a framework consisting of innumerable worlds (solar systems), where time and space were continuous, matter was atomic, and consciousness was atomic, yet derived from an all-pervasive unity. The material atoms were defined first by their subtle form, called tanmātra, which was visualized as a potential, from which emerged the gross atoms. A central notion in this system was that all descriptions of reality are circumscribed by paradox (Kak, 1986).

The universe was seen as dynamic, going through ceaseless change.


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Adapted from a chapter in “The Wishing Tree.”

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Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak is an Indian American computer scientist notable for his Indological publications on the history of science, the philosophy of science, ancient astronomy, and the history of mathematics.