Temporality and Eternity
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Temporality and Eternity

Nine Perspectives on God and Time

Marcus SchmĂŒcker, Michael T. Williams, Florian Fischer, Marcus SchmĂŒcker, Michael T. Williams, Florian Fischer

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eBook - ePub

Temporality and Eternity

Nine Perspectives on God and Time

Marcus SchmĂŒcker, Michael T. Williams, Florian Fischer, Marcus SchmĂŒcker, Michael T. Williams, Florian Fischer

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Is time a creation of God? How can God be considered eternal, if he is responsible for the existence of time? Is God temporal or is he timeless? The relationship between God and time has been an object of inquiry in philosophical and theological traditions around the world for centuries. This volume takes up these and other questions, presenting a range of answers not only as brought forth in European philosophical traditions and in early Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but also positions taken by mediaeval Indian theologians and in the influential traditions of early Buddhism.

Traditionally, discussions have focused on questions such as whether time is a necessary concomitant of God's existence, or whether time should be identified with God. But there is a further question: did these traditions develop their own unrelated and independent view of God and time? Or are there similarities in their reflections? This volume, with contributions of scholars from various relevant fields, offers a novel approach to these inquiries. When taken as a whole, it provides new momentum to contemplation on an age-old enigma.

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De Gruyter

On the relation between God and time in the later theistic Vedānta of Madhva, JayatÄ«rtha and Veáč…kaáč­anātha

Marcus SchmĂŒcker
Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, Austria
Note: I like to express my gratitude to Cynthia Peck-Kubaczek, who patiently supported me from version to version, to Joseph O’Leary who thoroughly corrected an earlier version, to Michael Williams, who discussed Madhva’s and Jayatirtha’s view on time with me, and finally to Nataliya Yanchevskaya, who provided valuable suggestions and corrections for the final version.

Introductory remarks

An important aspect of thinking about time in many philosophical and theological traditions, not only in the Occident but also in the East, is time as the source of suffering.1 One suffers under the sequence of time’s constituents “present”, “past” and “future”, a sequence involving nothing other than an irreversible progression towards an inevitable end, driven by the irretrievability of the past. Once we enter life and are subjected to this sequence, we are only able to experience ourselves in a succession of temporal episodes. Our lifetime as a whole, in its temporal sequence, is thus never available to us. Though we experience a present, when we try to grasp it, this present immediately becomes the past. This is another reason why we suffer due to time: our lifetime is perpetually being lost. Thus, facing time, humans are forced to reflect on their own finitude at birth, their inevitable death, and the misery of their existence between these two points in time. Time causes fear of no longer existing in the future, and thus it annihilates our freedom. As a destructive factor in human life, time is related to explanations of unalterable sequences such as the stages of life. Therefore, freedom from fear, that is, freedom from death, which is our non-existence in the future, is an important aspect of religious reality, an aspect inseparably connected to the finitude of human existence. Finitude means that no human being can escape the sequence of the progress of time that directs life to its end. It is the perpetual course of time that causes an awareness of finiteness, in other words, an awareness of being non-eternal. Given this situation, it makes sense that humanity has designed conceptions of God – and this implies concepts of eternity – that can overcome this constriction of time.
Indeed, it would run counter to the notion of God if such a Being were to suffer from a succession of temporal determinations. The temporality and imperfection of human existence are thus compensated by the concept of eternity, an attempt to describe a non-temporal structure that does not expose human beings to the hopeless suffering of passing time.
In this essay, I examine two contrasting conceptions of eternity propounded in two traditions of theistic pre-modern medieval India. The first conception is that of an eternity that is timeless. The second understands eternity as being in all times (past, present, future),2 eternity thus characterized as comprising the “fullness of life” in all its times. This non-temporal unity of time is an attribute of God, or is God himself. Here, eternity does not negate the human concept of time, but rather unifies human definitions of time. From this (second) perspective, divine eternity does not entail the exclusion of temporal determinations; rather, past, present and future are all included as being imperishable. The first concept attempts to define eternity in a stricter way, as having no temporal determination at all. Here eternity has nothing in common with the sequence of time; it is completely beyond time. From the viewpoint of suffering due to time, the import of such timeless eternity is its complete triumph over the destructive aspect of time. But then one is left wondering whether God, as a timeless eternal being, can have any knowledge of, or can care for, temporal entities, i.e. human beings.
In pre-modern India, discussions of these two concepts of eternity can be found in the texts of various theistic traditions, as in the two theistic Vedānta schools I will examine here. I will show that in these traditions, time, seen as determining the transitory nature of life, was in fact the point of departure for discerning the nature of a God transcending this condition. But before I discuss the two above-mentioned concepts of eternity from the perspective of three Vedānta representatives, Madhva and JayatÄ«rtha on one side and Veáč…kaáč­anātha on the other, I will examine why God and time became an important topic in these Vedānta traditions in the first place, as well as how concepts of the relation between God and time then developed.

Strategies against the suffering caused by time

The ambivalence between eternity and the temporality of time – I tend to say the creative and destructive character of time – is certainly one of the reasons it became a topic of discussion in India. While eternity implies unlimited continuity, temporality brings finite life to an end, a step that is uncontrollable and uninterruptable.
The oldest text of the Indian tradition, the RÌ„gveda, does not contain an abstract concept of time (kāla is mentioned only once, in RÌ„gveda 10.42.9), but it does refer to certain aspects of such a concept. The passing of time is not defined by the suffering it causes, but by the idea of continuity, of constant renewal. This constant renewal, which is supported by ritual activity, is found in several central concepts of the RÌ„gveda, including the cosmic order (rÌ„ta)3 by which the universe is upheld. The cosmic order is associated with the idea of a wheel (cakra),4 which, in turn, is associated with different time periods, the most important being the year (saáčƒvatsara).5 The recurring sequence of the “components of a year”, such as day and night, resembles the movement of a wheel6 that turns endlessly.
Such concepts of continuity characterized by infinite repetition might be considered a concept of eternity, or better, eternal sequences. Nevertheless, they also make the ambivalence of time clear, since defining continuity with the certainty of coming time also implies that time vanishes. While this ambivalence does not seem particularly important in the RÌ„gveda, it is nevertheless apparent in passages describing time not as leading to a new beginning, but to ageing and finally death, as well as in passages referring to natural phenomena such as the dawn (uáčŁas).7 One’s own finiteness is clear in the face of the simple observation that regular returning not only means renewal, but is also a reflection of time’s potency for destruction. This is alluded to forcefully in the Vedic ƚatapatha Brāhmaáč‡a (7th–6th centuries BCE), where the year is described as follows:
The Year, doubtless, is the same as Death; for he [d.i. Parajāpati] it is who, by means of day and night, destroys the life of mortal beings, and then they die: therefore the Year is the same as Death; [
] The gods were afraid of this Prajāpati, the Year, Death, the Ender, lest he, by day and night, should reach the end of their life.8
But before I follow this destructive conceptualization of time, let me go one step back. In two hymns (19,53–54)9 of the Atharvaveda (1200–1000 BCE), the next oldest text after the RÌ„gveda, any mention of the destructive aspect of time is still missing. Time is praised and its omnipotence is clearly expressed. It has gained in importance and become an independent principle: it is expressed as timeless and as temporal. Time is identified not only with what is considered the Highest, such as the Lord of all (sarvasyeƛvara) or the Lord of creatures (prajāpati), it is described as something indestructible and “without age” (ajara). Further, time is identif...

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