“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” ― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
One traditionally expects the apocalypse to be a reasonably well-planned event, replete with clear warning signs of impending doom, a sufficiently identified cast of characters, and a time frame laid out by the best minds in project management. Seven Seals broken? Check. Four Horsemen rode in? Check. Antichrist at large? Check. Messiah shows up again and rules for 1000 years? Yup. All the righteous gathered up to live in eternal bliss? Okay, that about wraps up human existence. If you were so inclined, you could put together a pretty snazzy flowchart of the Christian Apocalypse. Hindu eschatology is similarly well organized despite a cyclic notion of time, and is especially precise regarding the schedule. While the complete extinction of the greater Hindu universe never actually occurs from the perspective of someone with serious divine juice like Brahma, each Kalpa (4.32 billion years) represents an end of existence for the unwashed masses. Each Kalpa is broken up into four Yuga cycles of varying length (the Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, and ending with the Kali Yuga). The Kali Yuga, incidentally the period we are currently purported to be in usually involves a 432,000 year period of impiety, violence, and decay. By the very end of the Kali Yuga, tree bark and leaves will be the height of fashion, people will only live 23 years, false religions will abound, and eventually mankind will be utterly destroyed as the entire universe is recreated. The point is that for most religions, the apocalypse is a relatively long and drawn out affair with lots of mileposts, so you know where you stand. As with any grand theory, you always have dissenters who up the ante and although, sitting in your cave on the Aegean island of Patmos, you thought you came up with a worst case scenario, some snarky pessimist inadvertently comes up with an even more disturbing version of how the universe will end. Certain strains of Hinduism and Christianity thought the orthodox apocalypses weren’t horrifying enough and suggested that we are in imminent danger of complete obliteration from second to second. No grand plan. No signs and portents. For any given moment you exist, but in the next blink of an eye your particular universe (or rather that of you and every other mortal sharing it with you) might just be arbitrarily eradicated by an incautious god.
Vaishnavism is one of the major branches of Hinduism, focusing primarily on the veneration of Vishnu (and Vishnu’s ten incarnations, but mostly on the Trimurti or “trinity” of those aspects called Mahavishnu, Garbhodakśayī-Vishnu and Ksīrodakaśāyī Vishnu). The critters of the Trimurti each have a specific role in the maintenance of existence. Mahavishnu creates the total material energy of all the universes. Garbhodakśayī-Vishnu enters into all universes and spawns diversity in them. Ksīrodakaśāyī Vishnu is the “supersoul” in the heart of all living creatures everywhere. If you’re noticing the clear theological correspondence with the doctrine of “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”, you certainly wouldn’t be the first. Mahavishnu is said to spend his time backstroking in the ocean of Karanodak (the causal ocean), making and destroying entire universes. Its good work if you can get it. More specifically, with each exhalation, Mahavishnu creates billions of spiritual universes, and with each inhalation, he obliterates billions of spiritual universes. The Brahma Samhitā, a collection of fifty-two prayers, one of the oldest and most revered Sanskrit texts of Vaishnavism states, “Brahmä and other lords of the mundane worlds, appearing from the pores of hair of Mahavishnu, remain alive as long as the duration of one exhalation of the latter. I adore the primeval Lord Govinda of whose subjective personality Mahavishnu is the portion of portion” (Brahma Samhitā, Text 48). It would seem that we live in a rather precarious position, suspended between the breathing in and breathing out of Mahavishnu. Now, Hinduism has a rather long view when it comes to time, so one can never be certain exactly how long Mahavishnu’s breathing cycle takes, but rest assured, when he inhales (and oh, yes, he inhales), your sad, little karmically-challenged keister is slated for complete and total erasure. Could be today. Could be tomorrow. Could be right now. Duck and cover! Whew. Dodged a bullet there for a second, but who knows what the next second may bring. This seems to be a little like the theological equivalent of negative operant conditioning, that is behavioral modification by removal of an aversive stimulus when a desirable behavior occurs, thereby increasing the frequency of the desirable behavior. If you continuously have to worry that your universe will be eradicated, you probably want to maintain your status as a seriously righteous dude at all times, just in case, and each moment the universe doesn’t end could be considered a withdrawal of the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head, only to be replaced by yet another sword. Of course, you might just curl up into a fetal position and find yourself unable to do anything at all.
Lest you think that Vaishnavism has cornered the market on despairingly imminent and moment to moment potential for the creation and destruction of the universe, consider the Christian take on the cosmological state of affairs propounded by one Italian jurist, mathematician, and occultist Facius Cardan (1444-1524 A.D., also known as Fazio Cardano), a devoted friend of no less than Leonardo da Vinci, and said to be in constant contact with a familiar spirit that whispered secrets to him. Some say he just spent a lot of time talking to himself. And one of the things this familiar mentioned to Cardano was the fact that creation was not a unique event, rather if God’s attention should wander for even a moment, all of existence would end. It’s awfully easy to dismiss Fazio Cardano as a brilliant man, but abject loon, given his biography. I don’t like to use head trauma as a go-to explanation for anomalous experience, but our man Cardano seems to have had a litany of problems.
Fazio, albeit he came of such a long-lived stock, and lived himself to be fourscore, suffered much physical trouble during his life. On account of a wound which he had received when he was a youth, some of the bones of his skull had to be removed, and from this time forth he never dared to remain long with his head uncovered. When he was fifty-nine he swallowed a certain corrosive poison, which did not kill him, but left him toothless. He was likewise round-shouldered, a stammerer, and subject to constant palpitation of the heart; but in compensation for these defects he had eyes which could see in the dark and which needed not spectacles even in advanced age (Waters, 1898, p2-3).
Before you dismiss the notion that the universe is in need of continuous creation or is subject to absolute dissolution as the ravings of a sole intellectual, consider the fact that Cardano, although he might not have been aware of it, was echoing a precept of creation, fundamental but buried within the traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Process theologies, that is the idea of creatio continua, or “continuous creation”, that is existence is an ongoing relationship between man and God. Should we bore God too much, he could up and walk away in annoyance, ending the universe. Don’t bore God. Jazz up your prayers and confessions. We don’t want to take any chances.
Then there are those darn physicists. They never want to be left out of a good apocalypse. For a long time, some physicists have been arguing that the universe will ultimately collapse , but in 2013 a particularly sullen set of Danish physicists refined the calculations regarding this imminent calamity and suggested that a sudden and drastic change in the forces of the universe would unexpectedly occur one day (could be tomorrow, could be in a billion years) that would make every atom in the universe become billions of times heavier than they currently are, something to do with a bubble forming where the Higgs-Boson takes on a very different value from the rest of the universe and then propagates throughout the universe at the speed of light from this supermassive center. Jens Frederik Colding Krog of the University of Southern Denmark remarked, “Maybe the collapse has already started somewhere in the universe and right now it is eating its way into the rest of the universe…Or maybe it will start far away from here in a billion years. We do not know.” Either way it sucks for us humans.
An apocalypse in the distant future gives us the time to mentally prepare. You can start treating people nicely, help more injured animals, give more to charity, and generally shape up before everything goes to hell in a hand basket, thereby reaping the benefits of a life of eternal bliss, prepping oneself for oneness with the universal soul, or investing in real estate in another dimension. When the end of the universe is continuously in danger of happening right this second it gives one pause. But don’t pause too long, since existence could end while you spend your time with philosophical musings. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, as they say, for as Noam Chomsky noted, “The probability of apocalypse soon cannot be realistically estimated, but it is surely too high for any sane person to contemplate with equanimity”.
Waters, W. G. 1844-1928. Jerome Cardan; a Biographical Study. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1898.