What is Time? Concept of Time in Different Civilisations
Time is a Plural
Time is a human-created idea, derived from our experience of planetary motions, and the circadian rhythm, but the question for philosophy has been whether time is an imaginary construct or reality. Time is indeed real because it brackets our life on this planet; It is real because it is one of the variables against which science measures the parameters of our universe. Yet, time is a fleeting concept too because how we experience it has a strong subjective element in it. Aren't there different versions of the experience of time for each of us? Many personal versions of time. If we are into something enjoyable, time flies and if we are bored, time lags on. As we age, the long time we have lived seems quite brief and gone in the blink of an eye. The truth is that in the cultural history of humans, different people experienced and perceived time differently.
Aymaras Who walked from the Future to the Past
We usually think that moment by moment, we are rid of the past and heading towards the future. Contrary to this, the people of the Inca civilisation of Peru used to think that the past and the future are having an impact on any and every moment in the present. In other words, for them, the past, present and future co-exist.
The Aymara people of the Andes even now perceive time as just the opposite of what we, the modern world, understand- for them, the past is ahead and the future is behind. They talk about the past as if it is something in front of them and will describe the future as something that has already happened. This is so because, for them, time begins in the future and it is an incessant current flowing through the present into the past. As we live on, time flows back. So obviously you have your back to the future and the past is up ahead. They talk about their ancestors with a forward gesture of their hand suggesting that they are talking about something in the future. Confusing indeed!
Laura Spinney, a British journalist, writes in her 2005 Guardian article quoting a scientist, Rafael Nunez, that the Aymara tribe's language also reflects this conceptual reversal. But wait, it is not that hard to understand this seemingly complex view of time; if one attempts to have a fresh look at one's own view of life.
Animals show us that one can live in the moment, in an unpremeditated way, without bothering about time. Wise philosophers also have asked us to live in the moment and be carefree and without worries. Whether the awareness of time is good or bad for us is a matter of perception, not to forget that planning is part of our survival on this planet. However, for the Aymaras, Laura Spinney observes, one value associated with their unique notion about time is patience. The Aymara people do not mind waiting for public transport for half a day in the same spot. They do not plan their lives and are in no hurry. Anxiety about the future is probably less among them when compared to modern humans like us.
Linear or Cyclical?
As detailed above, all over the planet, the tribal people can be the most patient lot because they have a very different notion of time than ours. For the Hopi tribe, of the US, time is not linear at all-they do not differentiate between the past, present, and the future. It is understandable that if one does not believe that time is moving, there is no rush; there are no deadlines to meet and even death is not so concrete a concept.
The Hindu religion of Asia has a cyclical view of time. It is the non-stop cycle of creation and the destruction of the world and hence every life form gets reborn as many other life forms. What such a belief implies is that after death one will be reborn and one will have to pay the price of the acts done in his/her past lives. This entire process is imagined as a wheel and what ideally one thrives for is to stop the wheel, that is, to stop re-births and become one with the universe (which is called ‘Moksha’). Such a perception of time affects the life decisions of each individual. Everyone has to live keeping in mind one will be answerable for the deeds of this life in another life. In this frame of reference also, there is no need to hurry in life because it is all an endless cycle.
For Buddhists, time is an illusion. The aim of all those who seek enlightenment is to get out of the trappings of time and enter the realm of timeless time. Buddhism says everything is impermanent and that time can be understood only in relation to the phenomena and things that undergo change. To delve deeper, time has no independent existence apart from change.
Warm Time, Costly Time
There is an economics to time. When an economy is growing faster, time becomes a valuable commodity. This is why agrarian communities are slower than industrial ones. “Hotter places are slower”, said social psychologist Robert N. Levine (2008) in a book he wrote on time experiences of different geographic locations and the people there. The reasons for this could be diverse; no one is sure. Some say in a warmer climate, life is easier as people can live without cold-proof houses, clothing, etc., hence the slow pace. Some other reasons cited are to preserve energy which is already waning, as one is living under a hot sun, and also the simple psychological effect of warmth on people, making them slow. One can agree with all the reasons cited above because it is true, as, by noontime, everything comes to a standstill in tropical climates and people either stay indoors or even sleep when they can afford it.
A Prayer Lamp from Another Time
Is it good to live always in a linear notion of time? Wise people say, no. There has been so much discussion going on about living in the present moment. In 14 BCE, the Pharaoh of Egypt, Akhenaton observed that “he who neglects the present moment, throws away all he has". The Arctic being the land of the midnight sun, time plays an entirely different role there. This is why, in the Old Norse language, there is a word, ‘eykt, which is “an eighth of the 24-hour long day”. Eykt, which is 3 hours, became one of the basic units of time for the Norse people because they experience time in terms of solar motion than sunrise and sunset.
Isaac Newton, who can be considered the pioneer in explaining the physical universe for science, believed in a linear time that is universal and is not changed or impacted by anything in the entire cosmos. However, Einstein’s theory of relativity suggested that time has some level of flexibility. Thus in science also, time became relative as in ancient mythology, but this time with a scientific basis and subject to correction by future research. Once again, we could say time is in the eyes of the observer as beauty is. The recent discovery of gravitational waves has put the debate on time back into the limelight. In simple words, gravity can bend space, and obviously, that will have an impact on linear time too. Let us wait and see what discoveries about time, will time bring us.
Spinney, L. (February 24, 2005) How time flies, theguardian.com, Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/feb/24/4
Time in different cultures, (n.d.) exactlywhatistime.com, Retrieved from http://www.exactlywhatistime.com/other-aspects-of-time/time-in-different-cultures/
Levine, R.N. (2008) A geography of time: On tempo, culture and the pace of life, London: Hachette UK.
Surya Das, L. (2011), Buddha standard time, California: Hay House Inc. p.7.
Vilhjalmsson, T. (1997), Time and Travel in Old Norse Society, Disputatio, 2, pp.89-114.
Davies, P. (2006), About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, London: Penguin UK.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Deepa