If time waits for no man, I’d say time has a serious attitude problem. Where does time get off running so incessantly forward, like it’s got somewhere important to be? The present not good enough for you? Got to get to the future first? Vehicle warranty expiring? Primo Broadway tickets? Trying to sneak past Valentine’s Day again? It’s not like there is a prize at the end of time (or perhaps even an end of time), so why all the rush? You would be surprised at how many mythological figures a la “Rip Van Winkle” there are that tuned in and dropped out for a few decades or millennia, and returned terribly befuddled when time went home with a girl and left them at the club without a ride home. Time is awfully impolite that way, but it may just be a cultural thing. It seems that only us feeble humans treat time with a degree of respect and experience it in a relatively straightforward fashion. This is why it sucks to be mortal. Sure, the immortal gods can turn up their noses at time, but they’ve got eternity to hang out in style. As of yet, I have no indications that I’ll be living forever, which makes me curious about some of the mythological and folkloric ways our predecessors have gone about cheating time (or at least finding they didn’t have to participate in the usual fashion). Vedic King Kakudmin, 1st Century B.C. Jewish scholar Honi ha-M’agel, and Urashima Tarō of 5th Century A.D. Japan all were historically subjected to the disorienting effects of time dilation, but the mythos continues more recently (with our friends the faeries), and even today with the curiously common aspect of “missing time” that is frequently associated with monster and alien encounters. In short, at least since we first started taking an interest in why time flies and kvetching about it in print, some supernatural bastards have been stealing our time.
Take King Kakudmin (sometimes called Kakudmi or Raviata) of Kusasthali, for instance, as mentioned in sacred Vedic texts like the Mahābhārata, the Devi Bhagavatam, and the Bhagavata Purana. The Mahābhārata was the longest epic poem ever written, thought to have originated around the 9th Century B.C., and purports to be the Sanskrit history of ancient India. King Kakudmin was staggeringly wealthy and owned lots of real estate. That is generally how one gets to be king after all. Essentially he was the Richard Hilton of Kusasthali (which roughly corresponds to modern day Uttar Pradesh in India). He had a beautiful daughter named Revati, and like most fathers, no guy was good enough for her in his estimation. Unfortunately, reality television hadn’t been invented yet, so the King wasn’t able to accurately assess the fitness of Revati’s suitors with the assistance of the viewing audience, so he had to settle for the next best thing. He put a call in to Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, for a little fatherly advice. Brahma was more or less the father of everything, so it’s not unreasonable to assume he might know a thing or two. When Kakudmin arrived for his audience, the Gandharvas, heavenly critters renowned for their musical talents (although usually part animal, which one would think would lend itself towards three-chord style Ramones punk, but apparently Hindu aversion to leather jackets postponed this development), were playing, and not wanting to be rude and perhaps digging the tunes, Kakudmin waited for intermission. This was probably a bad idea in retrospect, since eternal deities think nothing of a 300 song set and wonder why a Grateful Dead jam is so short. In the time Kakudmin and Revati were waiting, thousands (if not millions) of years passed back on earth. I’ve had a similar experience at Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, so I can empathize.
Kakudmin took his daughter Revati with him and went to Brahma loka to enquire of Brahma, who should be her husband. The Gandharvas were singing at the time and Kakudmin had to wait for a moment. He then saluted Brahma and made the enquiry. Brahma laughed and said: — “O king, the men of your choice are dead and gone. I do not hear even of their sons and grandsons. Twenty seven yuga cycles have now passed away. Therefore go back to thy place and give thy daughter to Baladeva, who has now incarnated as an Ansa (part) of Vishnu for the good of Bhur-loka. And so the king did (Bhagavata Purana, Skhanda IX, Ch.3).
Technically, I believe the Vedic scriptures emphasize that 27 yugas (“Ages of Man”) had passed. The problem with yugas is that they’re not all the same length. I mean, the Sata Yuga is 1,728,000 years long, the Dvapara Yuga is 864,000 years long, and the truth is I can make neither hide nor hair of how long the 27 yuga cycles involved would be especially since the figures given for the above mentioned yugas are calculated in human years, which bear little or no resemblance to the years of the Gods, as a single day and night for Brahma has been calculated to be on the order of 4.3 billion human years. It seems Kakudmin and Revati took this all in stride, and went off to find the reincarnation of the lucky dude that Brahma gave the thumbs up. I guess when history is regarded a cyclical (not as in if you forget it you’re doomed to repeat it, but it’s going to repeat regardless of whether you forget it or not), a few eons difference don’t matter that much. Sacred stories like the Mahābhārata tend to conveniently take place in “Sacred Time”, which makes it a little difficult to know when to arrive for an appointment, or when you should leave if you want to make it back before everybody you know is dead. Mircea Eliade observed in talking about how we incorporate sacred time in religious rites, “For religious man time too, like space, is neither homogenous nor continuous. On the one hand there are the intervals of a sacred time, the time of festivals (by far the greater part of which are periodical); on the other there is profane time, ordinary temporal duration, in which acts without religious meaning have their setting. Between these two kinds of time there is, of course, solution of continuity; but by means of rites religious man can pass without danger from ordinary temporal duration to sacred time”. In most theologies, it is the cyclical and infinitely expanded sacred time that is the “real” time versus the mundane, profane time in which we lead our day to day lives. And this is why the gods are typically a blithely uncaring lot when, having subsumed our humanity in their sacred time, we tend to lose big portions of our profane existence back on earth. In the interest of avoiding a good divine smiting, understand that I’m not pointing any fingers here, just observing that our laughably linear time is of little or no consequence to paranormal critters with forever to blow. Forty days wandering in the desert (clearly they didn’t have good maps) may seem excessive to us, but it would be very difficult for an Old Testament god to see what all the fuss was about. Speaking of Old Testament gods, even our friends the staunch monotheists have gotten in on the time dilation action. I can see where religions with a notion of a cyclical universe don’t regard temporal manipulation as anything to write home about, but most of your old fashioned monotheisms delineate clear start and end points to time, at least for us corporeal human sorts. With those kinds of boundaries it seems downright rude to go nabbing a few decades of some poor slobs life, since there is no way for him to get the time back. Yet we have the story of Honi ha-M’agel in the Judaic Mishnah Ta’anit (probably recording Pharisee oral traditions that went as far back as 500 B.C., but redacted in 220 A.D.). Scholar Honi ha-M’agel (“The Circle Drawer”) was a nice 1st Century B.C. Jewish boy in the Galilee who eventually got himself stoned to death. For those not up on your ancient Judaism, there was a bit of contention between three veins of Judaism, the more Hellenized Saducee aristocracy, the anti-Roman Pharisees, and the ascetic and apocalyptically-minded Essenes (their actual theological differences were relatively minor). Pharisee Judaism evolved into the Rabbinic Judaism we recognize today, but in the 1st Century B.C. they were all still busy knocking each other on the head. Honi was pretty well known at the time for his successful rain-making miracles, but after some sort of supernatural encounter was said to have fallen asleep for 70 years, re-emerging to a different world where nobody believed he was actually Honi. He found this disturbing and prayed for God to take him away (not sure if this is an alternative rendering of his demise or if God obliged by having him stoned to death, which would be pretty cold-blooded, even for a cruel desert god). Although, in all fairness to supreme deities, the Talmud has Honi asking a lot of really annoying questions and generally being a pain in God’s ass.
R. Johanan said: All the days of this righteous man (Honi), he troubled himself concerning the meaning of the passage [Psalms, cxxvi. 1]: “When the Lord bringeth back again the captivity of Zion, then shall we be like dreamers.” Honi would constantly say: “How can a man sleep or be like a dreamer for seventy years?” Once he was travelling on the road, and he noticed a man planting a carob-tree. He asked him how many years it would take before the tree would bear fruit, and the man answered: “Seventy years.” Honi then asked: “Art thou, then, sure that thou wilt live seventy years?” And the man replied: “I found carob-trees in existence when I came into the world, consequently my ancestors must have planted them. Why should I not also plant them for my children?” About that time Honi became hungry, and sat down to eat near the newly planted tree. After the meal he fell asleep, and a bay formed about him so that he could not be noticed, and thus he slept for seventy years. When he awoke, he observed a man gathering the fruit from the carob-tree; and he asked the man: “Didst thou plant this tree?” The man replied: “Nay; I am the grandson of the man that planted it.” Honi then realized that he must have slept for seventy years, and when he looked around for his ass, he noticed that there were many smaller asses. He then went to his home, and inquired whether the son of Honi Hama’gel was still alive. He was told that the son was no longer living, but that a son of the son was alive. He then said: “I am Honi Hama’gel”; but they would not believe him. He went to the house of learning and heard them say: “To-day the Halakhoth are as clear as in the days of Honi Hama’gel, who would immediately render a clear decision when any questions whatever were put to him by the rabbis.” He went in and said to them: “I am that Honi”; but they would not believe him, nor would they accord him due respect. This caused him to become downcast and despondent, and he prayed to God that he might die, and so he died. Said Rabha: “This illustrates the saying: ‘Give me the glory due me, or give me death’ (Mishnah Ta’anit, Chapter 3).
This of course does not compare to the presumed thousands of years the Kukadmin had to contend with, but it shows how disconcerting a mere seventy years of time dilation could be. You’d be talking to grandsons of the people you once knew. Us humans are generally just not so good at coping with different kinds of time, and once the initial thrill of cheating time wears off, we tend to get a little depressed. A good example of this is mild-mannered Urashima Tarō, a Japanese fisherman in 478 A.D., who after spending three days (some versions say three years and a marriage later) in the marvelous undersea kingdom of Ryūgū-jō, returned to discover that three hundred years had passed since he left. The name Urashima Tarō first appears in the 15th Century A.D. literature, but he is no doubt the same as Urashimako, who is mentioned in 8th Century A.D. texts such as the Nihon Shoki (“Chronicles of Japan” – the 2nd oldest book of classical Japanese history”). Scholar Lafcadio Hearn remarks on the fact that this odd time discrepancy was duly recorded in the annals of the Emperor, noting “Now in the official annals of the Emperors it is written that ‘in the twenty-first year of the Mikado Yuriaku, the boy Urashima of Midzunoye, in the district of Yosa, in the province of Tango, a descendant of the divinity Shimanemi, went to Elysium [Horai] in a fishing-boat.’ After this there is no more news of Urashima during the reigns of thirty-one emperors and empresses — that is, from the fifth until the ninth century. And then the annals announce that ‘in the second year of Tenchiyo, in the reign of the Mikado Go-Junwa, the boy Urashima returned, and presently departed again, none knew whither’ (Hearn, 1922, p11). Apparently, after rescuing a turtle (who happened to be a daughter of the Emperor of the Sea), the undersea king wanted to express his gratitude, and brought Urashima Tarō down to the Palace of the Dragon God. After a few days, he needs to go home and check on his mother, but finds the few days passed at the bottom of the sea amounted to some 300-400 years ashore.
All Japanese children know about Urashima Tarō, the Rip Van Winkle of Japan. About fourteen hundred and thirty years ago — so the story goes — when fishing in his boat one summer day, he caught a tortoise on his line. But the fisher-boy knew that the tortoise was sacred to the Dragon God of the Sea, so he murmured a prayer and gently set it free. Soon after this a beautiful maiden rose out of the sea and entered the boat. “I am the daughter of the Dragon King,” she said. “And I have come to thank you for your kindness to the tortoise; and also to invite you to my father’s home.” So together they went to the wonderland; and Taro became the son-in-law of the Dragon King. For three years he lived there in perfect happiness; but at last the desire to see his parents again became very strong, so he asked his bride to let him go back for a short time. Reluctantly she at last agreed to this; and when he left, she gave him a box which she made him promise never to open. For if he opened it, he never could return to her again. So he went away; but when he reached his native village, he found that all was changed. Not even a trace of his old home remained. And no wonder! For since he left home on that summer day, four hundred years had come and gone. Full of sadness, he wandered back to the beach; and at last in despair he opened the box! Instantly a strange white vapour escaped and drifted away and with it went also Taro’s youth and strength: for in that moment he became an old, old man; and sank down lifeless on the sand beside the sea (Stephenson, 1911, p27).
In more recent memory, we have faeries and aliens stealing our time, although the aliens graciously don’t keep us out too late, just enough to make everybody think we were out on a drinking bender and concocted a monstrous abduction tale to explain our unscheduled absence. The truth is we seem to be the only species that takes this whole time thing very seriously. Everybody else is out there merrily manipulating the chronology, or acting like it doesn’t exist at all. It’s time us humans demanded that these supernatural critters with a penchant for putting us to sleep for seventy years, hauling us off to magical kingdoms where a day is a year, and acting all superior when we object that with our limited lifespans, we can’t just go throwing away the odd decade, provide some sort of disclaimer noting the extent of time dilation we may experience in their company. Otherwise we’re going to go looking for some more temporally linear and time sensitive mythological creatures to hang out with. As Carl Sandburg said, “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you”.
Hearn, Lafcadio, 1850-1904. Writings of Lafcadio Hearn. Large paper ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.
A Study of the Bhagavata Purana: Or, Esoteric Hinduism. Benares: Printed by Freeman & co., ltd., 1901.
Stephenson, Edward S. Famous People of Japan (Ancient And Modern). Yokohama [etc.]: Kelly & Walsh, Limited, 1911.