Understanding Time

In classical physics, space and time were considered completely different and independent of each other. Newton considered space to have three dimensions and a separate single dimension for time. Einstein, with his Theory of Relativity, showed that space and time were interlinked, and he changed the terminology from “space and time” to “spacetime,” and this spacetime had four dimensions. But it’s hard to understand four dimensions; it’s not intuitive. We can visualize the three dimensions “out there” in space. We are used to the three dimensions. Time is supposed to be the fourth dimension. Where is the fourth dimension? Where is it located?  How does it function? Neither Einstein nor science has given a proper explanation for the fourth dimension. Once we have a better understanding of time, the fourth dimension will be self-explanatory. So, let us start our investigation of time.

Location of the Time Dimension

This is not an easy question to answer. Most people will answer that time must exist “out there.” They see changes in objects “out there.” The object was in location A, but now it is in location B. An object was three feet tall and now it is five feet tall. They see these changes in the objects and conclude that time is the cause of these changes, and therefore time is the inherent property of space “out there.” They think that time is operating within the space “out there.” Is this correct? It is true that time is the cause behind all the changes we see in the objects “out there,” but it is incorrect to conclude that time is operating within the space “out there.” “Out there” is only the three dimensions; there is no place for the fourth dimension in space. Time must be located elsewhere, away from the three dimensions of space. But where?

To understand the location of time, we need to understand time better. If you look at time carefully, you can break it down into the following three components:

  • Past
  • Now or present
  • Future

Time is made up of only these three components. A simple question: can you look at the past in space “out there”? Obviously not. The only thing you can see “out there” is the present. The past is something which is gone; it cannot come back. It must be understood that every passing event which we experience is stored in our memory. This memory is part of our mind. When the present becomes the past, that event is stored in the mind. In this way, all the past events are stored in the mind—though we may not remember all of them. When we remember something, we are bringing a past event from the mind. We can remember past events only in the mind and not “out there.” This does mean that the time for the past event is available only in the mind.

As mentioned earlier, what is “out there” is only the present. This present is the “now” moment. It must be appreciated that what is “out there” is always the present. It can never be the past or the future. What is the duration of the present? According to the Planck constant, the smallest block of time is 10-44 sec. Once this tiny time duration passes, the current present becomes the past, and it is replaced by a new present. We know these past events are stored in the mind. When we compare the current present with the past event in the mind, we get a sense of time. This comparison of two events is the key for the generation of time.

Let us imagine that we did not have any memory; this would mean that no past events would be stored in the mind. If there were no past events, there would be no way of comparing the present “out there” with the past event stored in the mind. What does this mean? It means that we would only see the present “out there.” We would always be in the present. Since we would always be in the present, time would be an unknown entity. There would be no time. We would never have the need to understand time. This reasoning does indicate that the mind is required for the generation or presence of time. The mind is the location and creator of time. Therefore, the location of the fourth dimension, which is time, is present only in the mind. Space has three dimensions, and the mind has the fourth dimension.

Vedanta has always been clear that time or “kaala” is present only in the mind. The source and location of time is the mind. Vedanta also teaches us that everything in the mind is subtle and is made of vrittis or waveforms. Since we have shown that time is generated only in the mind, it must be made of vrittis. It is quite difficult for us to understand or visualize the composition of these waveforms, but one thing is certain—that time is subtle and therefore it is a waveform and is present in everyone’s mind, and it creates time.

Origin of Time

We now know that time is generated and is operational in the mind. So, the next question is: what is the origin of time and from where does this time come? The time waveform must come from somewhere; it cannot come from nothing.

Time comes from Self-Awareness or SatChitAnanda. In other essays, we have discussed that our inner core is Self-Awareness or SatChitAnanda. It is our inner bulb of Awareness. It is self-shining, full, and complete. This Self-Awareness is unborn, it is formless, and it is unchanging. In this essay, we will focus on the unchanging nature of Self-Awareness.

Unchanging: Awareness is unchanging. It always remains the same and it will never change. It is the same now, it was the same in the past, and it will remain the same in the future. Nothing in this physical universe fits this bill. Everything in the universe keeps changing. If you dig deeper into “unchanging,” you can conclude that time is present in an unchanging environment, but it is static and unmoving. Time is an inherent quality within something which is not changing, but this time factor remains dormant. The entity is unchanging due to the sole reason that the time factor is not active. If, for whatever reason, this “unchanging” starts “changing,” time will and must pop out from this unchanging entity. If something is changing, it means that what is now is no longer the same. Since the two events are not the same, the time factor comes into play to connect them. It is not incorrect to say that time drives the change between two events. Self-Awareness is unchanging, and the only reason it does not change is that the time factor is static or remains dormant.

How does unchanging Self-Awareness become the changing mind? The simple answer is: ignorance. We have seen in other essays that ignorance has the power to break up the non-dual Self-Awareness into duality with the object “out there” and the subject “in here.” This ignorance also breaks up the “unchanging” Self-Awareness into a “changing” mind. When this unchanging Self-Awareness becomes the changing mind, the dormant time in the unchanging environment pops out and becomes available, and it is active in the mind. This time then becomes operational in the mind. This changing part of the time waveform is the driving force of the time we know and see.

Powers of Time

Time is powerful. It interacts in our daily life in many ways. Some are known and some are unknown. Let us discuss some of the powers of time to show the scope and width of its power.

  • Time and Objects
  • Time and Space
  • Time and Spacetime
  • Time and Energy
  • Time and Gravity
  • Time and Motion

Time and Objects: Time is a waveform in the mind, and all the objects in the world are also a waveform in the mind. Do they interact with each other? Of course; the time waveform interacts with every object waveform in the mind. When any Seed Body germinates (or is born) and becomes a waveform in the Subtle Body, the time waveform superimposes itself on the object waveform. In the essay “Life Is a Living Wave,” we have discussed how there is a fully functional subtle universe made of waveforms. When a new object waveform is born, it is the t=0 or the birthday of the object waveform. Right from the t=0 moment, the time waveform is the driving force for the object waveform to modify itself, to grow itself to play out the blueprint of its life. If there was no time waveform, all the object waveforms would remain static and in the same state, with no growth. The time waveform is the underlying force which moves this universe and object waveforms forward.

The t=0 for each object is different. The t=0 for the universe was 13.7 billion years ago. The t=0 for the sun was about four billion years ago. In the same way, every object in the universe had its own t=0 when it came into existence. From t=0 to “now,” each of the objects has gone through a history of events. From one moment to the next, each of the objects modifies itself. As time moves forward, the object waveform keeps changing, playing out the blueprint of its life cycle. It is like a small shoot coming out from the seed, and then over time it becomes a fully grown tree with branches and leaves, and finally it decays and dies. The tree waveform plays out its blueprint as time moves forward. This life cycle applies to everything in the universe. It must be noted that the time waveform does not change the object waveform; it only moves it forward. The change in the object waveform is due to many reasons, including the fulfillment of its pending karmas and interaction with other objects waveforms.

Time and Space: Time and space are interconnected. They are two sides of the same coin. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity confirms this. Time is subtle and space is gross. It is correct to conclude that time creates space. Time is the source of space. How do we understand this? Science tells us that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. If a photon must travel from the beginning of the universe, it will take the photon 13.7 billion light-years to reach us. One light-year is the distance that light travels in one year. The size of the universe will be the distance traveled by the photon from the Big Bang. This distance traveled by the photon is the outer limit of the universe, because there was no universe before the Big Bang. If you assume the universe is 13.7 billion years old “right now,” then after one second, the age of the universe will be 13.7 billion years + one second. The photon now has to travel an additional 186,000 miles (speed of light) to reach us, which means the size of the universe has grown by 186,000 miles. After 10 seconds, the size of the universe would increase by 186,000 x 10 = 1,860,000 miles. One year from now, the size of the universe will increase by one light-year. By this reasoning, it is quite clear that time is creating the expansion of the universe. Every year, the universe expands by one light-year. As more time passes, the space of the universe keeps expanding. It is therefore only correct to conclude that time (which is subtle), creates space (which is gross).

From the above discussion, it is clear that time is the cause of the space “out there.” Without time, there would be no space.

Time and Spacetime: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity postulated the existence of the spacetime fabric. All objects rest on this fabric. A detailed analysis of this fabric is made in the essay “Understanding the Fabric of Space.”

This spacetime fabric has no space, but it is made up of time. Yes, it is made up of time. Time is the source of the spacetime fabric. This fabric operates only in the mind. Since it is made up of time, it must have a starting point and an end point. The starting point of this fabric is the observer/mind within each one of us. This is the t=0 for spacetime. The end point of this fabric is the age of the universe, which is around 13.7 billion years. So, this time-based fabric stretches from the observer/mind to the current age of the universe. As time passes, this fabric keeps expanding.

All the objects in the universe are placed appropriately on this time-based fabric. The sun is placed eight minutes away on the fabric, the moon is three seconds away, the tree some milliseconds away. In this way, all the objects are placed on this fabric. This time-based fabric is then converted into space “out there.”

Time is the underlying fabric of this universe. Without time, there would be no space and no universe.

Time and Energy: Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity interlinks time and energy. This theory states that in the presence of energy, the spacetime fabric curves or bends and, in the process, time slows down. A good example to understand this is that when you place any mass on a stretched rubber sheet, the rubber sheet curves around the mass of the object. In the same way, if you place a mass of energy representing an object on the spacetime fabric, the spacetime fabric bends and curves around this object. This bending of the spacetime fabric slows down time. This is a proven fact. The slowdown will depend on the mass of the object. The higher the mass, the higher the curvature, the slower the time.

A question can be asked: does the mass of energy slow down time, or does the slowing down of time create the mass of energy? Which came first—time or energy? It is like the chicken and the egg—which came first? This question is not easy to answer. However, both time and energy are subtle; both are vrittis and function only in the mind.

Time and Gravity: As taught in school, gravity is a mutual pull between different objects. There was no proper understanding of gravity till Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. This theory clearly showed that time is the key factor for the creation of gravity. The bending of the spacetime fabric or the slowing of time is the cause of the pull of gravity between objects.

We have seen in the previous section that an object bends or curves the spacetime fabric around itself. Any object which is within the curvature of the fabric will tend to slide down the curve toward the other objects. This tendency of sliding down is the cause of the gravitational pull between objects. The only reason why the object may not slide down is that the horizontal velocity is large enough to avoid the downward slide of the object. The downward pull is always present between all objects. This is the gravitational pull between objects.

The spacetime fabric is made up of time, so the curvature of time is the cause of gravity. It is not easy to grasp, but time is the only factor which creates the gravitational pull. The deeper the time-based curvature, the stronger the gravitational pull. With a shallow curvature, the gravitational pull is weaker. Once again, time plays a key role, this time in the creation of gravity.

Time and Motion: We see so much motion in the universe. On planet Earth, we see people walking, we see cars, trains, planes moving around. If we look at our solar system, all the planets, including Earth, are moving around the sun. Then the sun and other stars are moving around the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way galaxy is moving in relation to the other galaxies in the universe.

How is this motion generated? You will be surprised to learn that time is the cause of motion. Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity completely supports this. If you study this theory, you will understand that wherever there is motion, time slows down. The faster the motion, the slower the time clock. If you achieve the speed of light, time will completely stop. It must be pointed out that this theory gives the impression that there is motion, therefore time slows down. Motion is cause, and time is effect. This is incorrect. It is the other way around. Time slows down, and it creates a sense of motion of the object. Time creates motion. Please read the essay “Understanding Motion” for a more detailed analysis of this connection between time and motion.

Time is highly active in the mind. It drives every object to play out its life-cycle blueprint. Time is the source of the creation of space. Time is interconnected with energy. Time creates gravity. Finally, time is the source of object motion.

Time has awesome powers. Time is King! Nothing works without time.

One thought on “Understanding Time”

  1. Very interesting way of bringing together Vedanta and modern physics together and coming up with this easy to understand explanation of time.

    From another fellow IITian from IITM 1982., B.tech.

    I am also a fan of Swami Sarvapriyananda from the Vivekananda association. He explains the Who Am I question using Mandukya upanishad. Will check your other posts to see if you have addressed that :).

    Hope there is a recording of your talk tonight – OBSERVING THE OBSERVED – Where Vedanta Meets Quantum Physics facilitated by Princeton U Hindu Life Program.

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