How Long is an Eternity?

Apr 27, 2021 / The Twelve Mysteries / infinity / mythology

cyanotype image arrow against sky with trees in bottom
Arrow. cyanotype on paper, 2021. Two print sizes. © Jonah Calinawan

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They took him along to where seven trees stood in a row. They were enormous, older than the Vedas, and had survived four dissolutions of the universe. Their branches swept the heavens. No one, not even Brahma, could measure the distance between the top and bottom of these trees.

Rama stood in front of the seven trees and twanged his bow string, the resonance echoing through all the hills and valleys. Then Rama took out an arrow and shot it through not only the trunks of the seven trees but also through the seven worlds, and the seven seas, and all things in seven; and then it returned to its starting point in the quiver.

Narayan, R. K, Ramayana 2006, p 101

Hindu myths have gone farther than other traditions in defining eternity. For example, Christian and Greek myths use stories and words like eternal life, infinity, and forever to communicate eternity. Hindu myths have those too, of course, but they also contain something unexpected—numbers that mystify and astound.

Take Ramayana’s (affiliate link) opening passage above that inspired my latest cyanotype image, Arrow. The number 7 repeats many times. Why? It’s a mystery. In my view, each repetition underscores the idea of eternity as expressed by the trees that have survived four dissolutions of the universe, whose branches touch the heavens, and whose heights are immeasurable.

Noticing these expressions of eternity in mythology and literature helps us appreciate life. Admittedly, life is horrible during the pandemic, but vaccines give us a glimpse of the end. So get vaccinated! :-) And what happens after? I like what mythologist Joseph Campbell has to say about eternity:

Realizing how this moment of your life is actually a moment of eternity, and experiencing the eternal aspect of what you’re doing in the temporal experience—this is the mythological experience.

In other words, contemplating eternity induces a “mythological experience.” This article discusses how Hindu myths speak about eternity, followed by what this “mythological experience” is that eternity inspires.

The MahāYuga Cycle of Eternity

One of Hinduism’s fundamental beliefs is that the world goes through an unending cycle of creation, maintenance, and destruction. Each “world cycle” or MahāYuga subdivides into four cycles or yugas. Kali lasts for 432,000 years; Tretā for 864,000 years; Dvāpara for 1,296,000 years; and Krita for 1,728,000 years. The total is 4,320,000 years for one MahāYuga cycle. And that’s just the earth. The universe’s cycle is 311,040,000,000,000 years before it restarts again. These times are incomprehensible that they might as well be eternity!

And the numbers don’t stop there. In the Bhagavata Purana (affiliate link), the sage Suka says:

I have told you about the yugas and their duration. Let me now describe the Kalpas and the Pralayas to you.

A thousand chaturyugas is one day of Brahma. This is a Kalpa. In every Kalpa, there are fourteen Manus, each one the sovereign of a Manvantara.

When the Kalpa ends, Brahma’s night begins: a Pralaya, a state of dissolution, when the three lokas cease to exist. This lasts a thousand chaturyugas, as well. (emphasis added)

What are kalpas and pralayas? Those are ten times a MahāYuga or 4,320,000,000 years each! Hindu myths astound with huge numbers. According to mathematician Oystein Ore of Number Theory and Its History, “The Hindus had a peculiar attraction to large numbers, and immense figures occur commonly in their mythological tales and also in many of their algebraic problems. As a consequence, there existed particular names for the higher decadic groups to very great powers of 10. For instance, in a myth from the life of Buddha one finds the denominations up to 10153.” That’s a very long time!

How long is an eternity? Hindu myths attach numbers to eternity, and the numbers are enormous and repeat endlessly. And so, eternity is “beyond all categories of thought” as Joseph Campbell says in the Power of Myth (affiliate link).

Hinduism’s concept of time blows my mind. The western mindset focuses on biography—thus, it focuses on one life instead of Life. It is also linear. Hindu mythology considers time in astronomical terms—thus in millions and billions of years that cycle forever! Consequently, scholar Heinrich Zimmer observes that Hindu myths regard the here and now as unreal and eternity as the real. This is not to say that our lives are unimportant, but Hinduism’s viewpoint is to gain that broad perspective. Our life is temporary and that our normal state is eternity.

Why Hindu Myths Contain Large Numbers

I speculate that Hindu myths contain large numbers to reinforce foundational beliefs like reincarnation and how the gods are endless, boundless, and infinite. In most mythologies, ideas like these are transmitted through narrative and words. In Hindu mythology, they also are transmitted through mathematics. This thesis gripped me so much that I wrote a research paper on it (I’m doing a Ph.D. in Mythology). During my research, I found education, entertainment, and artistic reasons for large numbers, but my initial thesis inspired me the most.


All these large numbers, approaching eternity and infinity, is a way to generate mystical awe, which Campbell once theorized is one of the four functions of mythology. I create art for the same reason: to create mystical awe. This insight also explains why I specialize in cyanotype. Of all the colors, blue is the most mysterious, and therefore, closer to mystical awe.

Mystical Awe is the Mythological Experience

Large numbers, tending to eternity and infinity, create mystical awe. The Oxford Dictionary defines awe as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” The dictionary further notes that the origins in Old English speak of terror and dread—meaning that awe is not just an ecstatic, happy feeling. I love the definition by novelist Romain Rolland who relates mystical awe to an “oceanic feeling,” a sensation of eternity that is limitless and unbounded like the ocean. Mystical awe is the mythological experience that Campbell talks about. In my view, large numbers are one method to create that mythological experience.

surreal man on mast of ship looking at blue horizon unknown ocean
Pacifica. cyanotype on paper, 2014. © Jonah Calinawan

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Hinduism loved large numbers, and so did Jainism—another religion of ancient India. The Jains recognized levels of infinity based on dimensions: length (one dimension), area (two dimensions), volume (three dimensions), infinite perpetually (infinite number of dimensions). What are we dealing with in mythology? It is the infinite perpetually, which generates a feeling of mystical awe.

Mathematics of Eternity

The preceding discussions lead to the following advice: become aware of the mathematics of eternity in mythology and literature. The Īsha Upanishad’s preamble provides one example:

This is Infinite, That is also Infinite, From Infinite comes the Infinite, Taking Infinite from Infinite, what remains is the Infinite.

What does this mean? One interpretation is that you are infinite, and I am infinite. Nothing can ever diminish you or me. Subtracting infinity from you and me, we remain infinite. This passage says that we are the same, are “one,” and are an unending source of life, feeling, and spirit. In my view, numbers like eternity and infinity are doorways to transcendence.

Another quote on eternity from mythologist Joseph Campbell for practice:

I once overheard the clergyman at an Anglican wedding ceremony say to the couple something like this: “Live your life in such a way that you will merit eternal life in the future.

I thought, Well, that’s not quite correctly phrased. What he might have said, I thought, was this: “Live your life, your marriage, in such a way that you will experience your eternal life now.” Because eternity is not a long time. Eternity is not future or past. Eternity is a dimension of now. It is a dimension of the human spirit—which is eternal. Find that eternal dimension in yourself, and you will ride through time and throughout the whole length of your days.

How long is an eternity? Another answer is that it is an eternal dimension of now. This makes me think of the infinite number pi(π), which sits between the finite numbers of 3.14 and 3.15! Such is the power of numbers in mythology. It embraces contradiction that frequently happens in life.

* * * 

What do you think of my idea that eternity is a doorway to transcendence? Can contemplating eternity induce mystical awe? Do you have favorite quotes on eternity? Let me know in the comments below!

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