According to Hindu scriptures and mythology, the universe as we know it is destined to pass through four great epochs, each of which is a complete cycle of cosmic creation and destruction. This divine cycle completes its full-circle at the end of what is known as a Kalpa, or epoch.
Hindu mythology deals with numbers large enough to be nearly impossible to imagine. A Kalpa itself is said to be comprised of a thousand cycles of four yugas, or ages—each of a different quality.
By one estimate, a single yuga cycle is said to be 4.32 million years, and a Kalpa is said to consist of 4.32 billion years
About the Four Yugas
The four great epochs in Hinduism are Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapar Yuga and Kali Yuga. Satya Yug or the Age of Truth is said to last for 4,000 divine years, Treta Yuga for 3,000, Dwapara Yug for 2,000 and Kali Yuga will last for 1,000 divine years—a divine year equalling 432,000 earthly years.
Hindu tradition holds that three of these great ages have already passed away, and we are now living in the fourth one—the Kali Yuga. It is quite hard to contemplate the meaning of the vast quantities of time expressed by the Hindu time scheme, so vast are the numbers. There are different theories about the symbolic meaning of these measurements of time.
Metaphorically, the four Yuga ages may symbolize the four phases of involution during which man gradually lost the awareness of his inner selves and subtle bodies.
Hinduism believes that human beings have five kinds of bodies, known as annamayakosa, pranamayakosa, manomayakosa vignanamayakosa and anandamayakosa, which respectively mean the “gross body,” the “breath body,” the “psychic body,” the “intelligence body,” and the “bliss body.”
Another theory interprets these epochs of time to represent the degree of loss of righteousness in the world.
This theory suggests that during Satya Yuga, only truth prevailed (Sanskrit Satya = truth). During the Treta Yuga, the universe lost one-fourth of the truth, Dwapar lost one-half of the truth, and now the Kali Yuga is left with only one-fourth of the truth. Evil and dishonesty have therefore gradually replaced truth in the last three ages.
Dasavatara: The 10 Avatars
Throughout these four yugas, Lord Vishnu is said to have been incarnated ten times in ten different avatars. This principle is known as Dasavatara (Sanskrit dasa = ten). During the Age of Truth, human beings were spiritually most advanced and had great psychic powers.
In the Treta Yuga people still remained righteous and adhered to moral ways of life. Lord Rama of the fabled Ramayana lived in Treta Yuga.
In the Dwapara Yuga, men had lost all knowledge of the intelligence and bliss bodies. Lord Krishna was born in this age.
The present Kali Yuga is the most degenerated of the Hindu epochs.
Living in the Kali Yuga
We are said to presently be living in the Kali Yuga—in a world infested with impurities and vices. The numbers of people possessing noble virtues are diminishing day by day. Floods and famine, war and crime, deceit, and duplicity characterize this age.
But, say the scriptures, it is only in this age of critical troubles that final emancipation is possible.
Kali Yuga has two phases: In the first phase, humans—having lost the knowledge of the two higher selves—possessed knowledge of the “breath body” apart from the physical self. Now during the second phase, however, even this knowledge has deserted mankind, leaving us only with the awareness of the gross physical body. This explains why mankind is now more preoccupied with the physical self than any other aspect of existence.
Due to our preoccupation with our physical bodies and our lower selves, and because of our emphasis on the pursuit of gross materialism, this age has been termed the Age of Darkness—an age when we have lost touch with our inner selves, an age of profound ignorance.
What the Scriptures Say
Both the two great epics—The Ramayana and Mahabharata—have spoken about the Kali Yuga.
In the Tulasi Ramayana, we find Kakbhushundi foretelling:
In the Kali Yuga, the hotbed of sin, men and women are all steeped in unrighteousness and act contrary to the Vedas. Every virtue had been engulfed by the sins of Kali Yuga; all good books had disappeared; impostors had promulgated a number of creeds, which they had invented out of their own wit. The people had all fallen prey to delusion and all pious acts had been swallowed by greed.
In the Mahabharata (Santi Parva) Yudhishthir says:
… The ordinances of the Vedas disappear gradually in every successive age, the duties in the Kali age are entirely of another kind. It seems, therefore, that duties have been laid down for the respective age according to the powers of human beings in the respective ages.
The sage Vyasa, later on, clarifies:
In the Kali Yuga, the duties of the respective order disappear and men become afflicted by inequity.
What Happens Next?
According to Hindu cosmology, it is predicted that at the end of the Kali Yuga, Lord Shiva will destroy the universe and the physical body will undergo a great transformation. After the dissolution, Lord Brahma will recreate the universe, and mankind will become the Beings of Truth once again.