Recently, I was discussing instituting an important lecture series with some highly educated colleagues. As the general title for the series, I suggested “parjanya”, which means divine rain. The word occurs in ancient Indian texts as a common term for “rains”, “early part of the rainy season”, “a strong shower”, etc. “Parjanya” is sent by Varuna, the god of sky, ocean and water, a rough equivalent of the Greek mythical god Poseidon. The lectures were to be scheduled during the monsoon; and I thought “Parjanya Lecture” would at once indicate the time of the year when it is to be held.
Soon after, I noticed that in the written communication of my colleagues the term had been transmuted to “prajanya”, another word, possibly not one that exists in Sanskrit or any other Indian language. If one were to make any sense of the accidentally coined term, it can at best mean “that which can be born”. I tried to point out the unconscious transposition of letters ‘r’ and ‘a’ by them. As I was discussing the incidence, I noticed that the term parjanya was not known to them at all. This surprised me, for in my childhood and youth, the term was used in Marathi, Hindi, and Gujarati; and it was intelligible to the average educated person. I shall not rush to the conclusion that one more word has gone out of circulation from these languages. Perhaps, it would be better to conclude that the word has lost out to the wide fluctuation in the beginning and ending of seasons. Climate change has impacted how people perceive natural phenomena. This brings me to thinking of time.
Time was when people perceived various shades of time differently than they do now. This applies to the long time cycles such as the year or months and relatively short time cycles such as a single day or its parts. Some half a century ago, it was not uncommon for people to think of the earliest moments of dawn as different from the moment when the dawn turns into daybreak. The early hours of the morning and the slightly later hours of the morning were perceived distinctly. The same was the case for early evening and the beginning of night, or early night and the later part of the night. A fortnight was perceived in terms of the lunar calendar.
When I carried out the People’s Linguistic Survey, I was amazed to see that hundreds of different languages in India had different measures of time, apart from having terms for months and days of the week. Invariably, I used to ask the communities with different time measures if they were conversant with the Gregorian system of January to December for the count of months, Monday to Sunday for the count of days and one to 12 for the count of hours. Their response, invariably, was “yes, of course”.
- In earlier times, people perceived various shades of time differently than they do now.
- Even now, countless communities have in their consciousness two parallel perceptions of time.
- And it is for the same reason that so many centuries continue to coexist in all forms of our social and cultural expression.
Parallel perceptions of time
So, these countless communities had in their consciousness two parallel perceptions of time. I have been curious about how the human consciousness can simultaneously measure time in two or more different measures. One did not have to go very far to grasp the phenomenon. When I was in Gujarat, I noticed that most people—all religions, castes and classes—had great ease and comfort wishing “saal mubaraq” (salutation drawn from the Islamic-Persian tradition) in the Julian month of October-November, in the days following the Deepavali festival. But, the very same people were equally comfortable in observing March-April as the financial year closing/opening. This “dual chronicle” consciousness marks all States which celebrate Yugadhi/Ugadhi and Cheti-chand and communities that celebrate the arrival of Chaitra as a season, or Vasant as a season.
“Bhartrihari, a 4th-century linguist, describes Time as a well, filled with water, from which humans draw pot-full portions (hours and days) by using the water wheel.”
The ability to live at once in several traditions of time brings to my mind various descriptions of Time available in some ancient texts. Bhartrihari, a 4th-century linguist, in his Kala Samuddesha describes Time as a well filled with water, out of which humans draw pot-full portions (hours and days) by using the water wheel. He adds though that Time is also like a long road on which we trade and go from one point to another, while the road remains exactly where it is. Finally, he also speaks of “moments” like birds being trained by a bird catcher. He can pull them back at will, but they think they are free to fly in the sky. These metaphors for describing time indicate that humans can and do relate to time quite differently. The Jain thinker Acharya Kundkunda of the first century CE, whose footprints are in worship on the Ponnur Hill in Tamil Nadu, spoke of Time in terms of “atoms”—the “kala-anu”—as if it was matter rather than a process.
One can go on describing various philosophies of Time and the various linguistic expressions associated with it. The simple fact is that the vast number of Indian communities continue to live simultaneously with multiple conceptual frameworks of time. When we use an expression such as “till the cows come home”, an expression that an English person may have difficulty understanding, clearly one is thinking of the “go-dhuli” (the dust kicked up by cows as they move slowly in the evening when the sky gets red at sunset), though the speech is in English, which can but admit a different count of minutes, hours, days, and weeks. The characteristic “abhi paanch minit me aaya” (I will be there in five minutes) Indian delaying tactic is understood by us because we live in many parallel frameworks of time. And it is for the same reason that so many centuries continue to coexist in all forms of our social and cultural expression, which makes us neither completely modern nor entirely traditional. Life in so many times, beyond the totalitarian chronometers, is the essence of life in India, this side.
Ganesh Devy is Obaid Siddiqi Chair Professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru.