The Kali Yuga: Dicing with Death

One of the most well-known cultural imports from India that has exerted an influence on Western thought is that of the Kali Yuga. This topic has been particularly dwelt upon by the Perennialist School, which includes authors such as René Guénon and Alain Daniélou. The reason for the popularity of this subject in the West is two-fold: Firstly, the Kali Yuga can be used to explain a number of political, economic, and environmental problems which currently face humanity. Secondly, the Kali Yuga and whole concept of cyclic time is not entirely foreign. The theory of time as non-linear and not always ‘progressive’ is a very ancient one, rooted in our own past. A similar cycle of Ages is present in Greek history, notably within the works of Hesiod, where he speaks of a fall from a Golden Age towards an apex of decline in the Iron Age. This cycle is also found in the Voluspá of the Poetic Edda which outlines Ragnarök and a Wolf Age (the equivalent of the Kali Yuga/Iron Age).

The four Yugas (Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali) have two standards of measurement, the chronological and the ethical. The chronological approach is based on astronomical positions and mathematical calculations. The stars and planetary positions have long been thought of as capable of influencing human behaviour via astrology, so from this viewpoint the cosmos itself would be the cause of the Yugas. Joscelyn Godwin brings the astronomical perspective to the fore when he states that “one of the recurrent themes of the Golden Age is that during it the earth’s axis was perpendicular to the ecliptic… If this were so there would be no seasons, but equal day and night throughout the year.”1 The influence on time would therefore be direct and visible. The symbolism used to portray the Golden Age often implies an alteration to time, as major planetary conjunctions are said to occur at the end of the Kali Yuga – and they are permanent conjunctions, which strongly implies time itself ceases.

However, the majority of issues which arise in the Kali Yuga can also be attributed to a decline in human morality and ethics, so many of the problems could be entirely man-made. The imagery of time, the ultimate horror for all sapient life, could simply have been added as a metaphor for a more psychologically healthy state, wherein man no longer feels enslaved by others ‘from the cradle to the grave’, enjoying the spontaneous nature of life in a seemingly endless Golden Age.

The Yuga itself is governed by the forces of ṛṭa, dharma, and karma. The first, ṛṭa (the cosmic law), is eternal and cannot be broken down. The second function, dharma (through ṛṭa) develops into a notion of individual human and social actions in relationship with the overarching cosmic order. It is dharma, the code of ethics which governs human society that erodes. Dharma decreases as the material aspect of existence (tamas) increases, and at certain points when the dharma is severely weakened, a new Yuga commences.

Not only do the Yugas differ in the quality of dharma, they also differ in duration, for as the author René Guénon notes, the Yugas themselves have “decreasing lengths of the respective durations of the four Yugas that together make up a Manvantāra.”2 The duration of the Yugas decrease proportionally with a ratio of 4:3:2:1.3 Guénon elaborates on the different lengths of the Yugas explaining that “it can therefore be said not only that time compresses space, but also that time is itself subject to a progressive contraction, appearing in the proportionate shortening of the four Yugas, with all that this implies, not excepting the corresponding diminution in the length of human life.”4 Guénon provides an example of this explaining that if “the duration of the Manvantāra is 4,320, those of the four Yugas will respectively be 1,728, 1,296, 864, and 432.”5 Jean Robin highlights a flaw here though. Commenting on Guénon’s chronology, Robin states that Guénon’s calculations mean that the Kali Yuga would have ended in 1999: “The beginning of the Kali Yuga would thus be in the year 4481 BCE (3761 + 720), and its end would have to come 6,480 years later, i.e. in the year 1999 (6480–4481).”6

The Kali Behind the Yuga’s Name

It is a common misconception that the Kali Yuga is named after the Goddess Kālī. Instead it takes its name from an extremely powerful male demon. This mistake occurs due to errors in English translations of the name Kali – in Sanskrit the Goddess is named Kālī (with long vowels) – the name of the demon is spelt Kali (with short vowels). The demonic Kali takes his name from the Sanskrit root kad which means to “suffer, grieve, hurt, confound, or confuse.” Kali is the archenemy of Kalki, the 10th avatar of the God Viṣṇu. When Viṣṇu incarnates as an avatar, so does Kali – in the Mahābhārata he is said to be Duryodhana, and in the Rāmāyaa he is Rāvaṇa. Kali is the great-great-grandson of Lord Brahmā, as well as Adharma who was originally created from Lord Brahmā’s back as a Maleen Pataka (a sinful object). This is found in the Śrī Kalki Purāa where it says that, “After the annihilation, the secondary creator of the universe, Lord Brahmā, the grandfather of everyone, who was born on the universal lotus flower, created Sin personified, having a black complexion, from his back.”7 An alternate version of Kali’s origin states that he was born from the left-over poison that was drunk by Lord Śiva during the churning of the ocean of milk.

Kali as dark-skinned monster with sword, From “The Cow with 84 Deities”, c. 1912, Ravi Varma Press

Depictions of Kali portray him as both revolting and terrifying. The Kalki Purāa describes Kali as huge and the colour of “soot,” with a long tongue and a terrible stench. He carries a bone and has an abdomen that is said to be like that of a crow. Kali is always portrayed holding his genitals in his left hand and he has a dark complexion, like black ointment that has been mixed with oil.8 The Bhāgavata Purāa also describes him as a śūdra wearing the garments of a king. Kali’s symbol is an owl and he rides a donkey instead of a horse. Kali is very fond of gambling, drinking wine, enjoying the company of prostitutes, and associating with merchants – his whole persona exudes an aura of extreme excess, gluttony, and greed. Kali is also presumed to be responsible for all evil scriptures and badly composed religious texts. The favourite residences of Kali are

the playgrounds of ghosts, foxes, and jackals. These places were permeated with the foul odour of decaying beef, and they were infested with crows and owls. Kali’s domain can be found wherever there is gambling and intoxication, as well as where women constantly quarrel.9

In sum his domains are those which are deemed impure by Hinduism, and are found wherever people lose their rationality, generating strife and conflict. It is the influence of Kali that distorts the perception of humanity and lures them from the dharma. Kali’s association with negative human emotions and antagonism towards the dharma is symbolised by the names of his destructive progeny.

Kali’s sister was Durukti (Harsh Speech). From Durukti’s womb Kali begot a son named Bhaya (Fear), and a daughter named Mṛtyu (Death). Bhaya begot a son named Niraya (Hell) from the womb of Mṛtyu, and Niraya begot ten thousand sons in the womb of his sister, Yatana (Excessive Pain). Thus I have described the destructive progeny of Kali, who were all blasphemers of genuine religious principles.10

Kali’s reign, the Kali Yuga, commences within the Mahābhārata and this book is a pivotal text for understanding both the demon and the Yuga. The end of the Mahābhārata is traditionally believed to herald the dawn of the Kali Yuga, and it begins when Kṛṣṇa, the avatar of the God Viṣṇu, departs. Based on the astronomical observations of Parāśara, a date of c.1350 BCE can be provided for the Mahābhārata.11

Kali’s presence in the text is subtle, and for the most part revealed only through symbolism. Hints of the infernal origin of Duryodhana are hidden within the Mahābhārata. Vidura issues warnings of the inauspicious symbols which surround Duryodhana and link him to Kali, saying,

Listen to me, sire, even if my words are bitter, like medicine to a dying man. When Duryodhana was born he cried like a jackal. He will destroy us all. A jackal stalks our palace. Order Arjuna to kill him. Sacrifice a crow to get peacocks, sire; sell a jackal to buy tigers.12

Jackals are one of the animals traditionally associated with both Kali and bad omens. In a different translation of the Mahābhārata, Kali’s presence is clearly stated.

Know that Pāṇḍu of unfading glory and distinguished above all others, sprung from the Maruts. Kṣattri and Yudhiṣṭhira are both portions of the deity of Righteousness. Know that Duryodhana was Kali, and Śakuni was Dvāpara.13

Just as the other main characters within the Mahābhārata are avatars of deities, so too is Duryodhana the avatar of Kali. The identity of Kali as the villain of the Mahābhārata also sheds much light on the actions of Krṣṇa, the avatar of Viṣṇu, and the role he plays in teaching Arjuna the katriya dharma. Kali also appears as Nala in the Mahābhārata, who he possesses via the dice game (a form of gambling). During the dice game, Nala loses everything and is forced into exile. Kali’s possession of Nala ends when the Nāga Karkoṭaka bites him and the venom turns Nala into an ugly dwarf named Bāhuka, who eventually masters the dice game. Learning this enables Nala to exorcise the demon and he vomits Kali from his mouth. The story of Nala is a micro-version of the Mahābhārata itself – Duryodhana also lures Yudhiṣṭhira into playing the dice game, unaware that Duryodhana, aided by another demon Dvāpara (who has incarnated as Śakuni) is manipulating the dice so he can take over the kingdom.

“Challenged, I never retreat,” replied Yudhiṣṭhira. “We are pawns in the hand of fate. Let us begin. Who plays against me?” “I will supply the stakes,” Duryodhana said. “My uncle Śakuni will play.”14

Yudhiṣṭhira loses the kingdom, his brothers, himself, and even his wife. The dice game is also of further importance because the Yugas were originally named after the four throws of dice – Krita, Trita, Dvita, and Kali – Krita being the best throw and Kali the worst. Therefore, Kali is not only winning the dice game, he is winning the Yuga and declaring it, albeit symbolically, as his reign and preparing to engage in conflict with his traditional enemy, Viṣṇu, who incarnates as Krṣṇa in the Bhagavad-Gītā section of the Mahābhārata. Despite the defeat of Kali/Duryodhana in the epic, the end of the Mahābhārata is the beginning of the Kali Yuga, because it is believed that the very moment Krṣṇa left the earth, Kali became active in the world.

Kali will not leave the world again until his nemesis Viṣṇu incarnates as Kalki. The Kalki Purāa is set at the end of the Kali Yuga and narrates the battle between the final avatar of Viṣṇu and Kali, who is defeated one-third of the way through the text. As Kali’s connection to the Kali Yuga is much more explicit in the Kalki Purāa, the manner in which he influences humanity and the dharma is also more obvious. The problems of the Kali Yuga are both moral and ethical, and the central issue of the Kalki Purāa is that society rejects the dharma and Vedic teachings. This is portrayed in Kalki’s role vis á vis the mleccha. The mlecchas are understood to be

those who do not follow the Vedic principles. In former days, the mlecchas were fewer, and Visvāmitra Muni cursed his sons to become mlecchas. But in the present age, [the] Kali Yuga, there is no need of cursing, for people are automatically mlecchas. This is only the beginning of [the] Kali Yuga, but at the end of [the] Kali Yuga the entire population will consist of mlecchas because no one will follow the Vedic principles. At that time the incarnation Kalki will appear.15

It is also stated that,

the pious Brāhmaa have left this country (India), having been chastised by the powerful Kali, who is envious of saintly persons, and who destroys the practice of religious principles.16

In addition to the mlecchas multiplying and the Brāhmaṇas departing, the caste system also breaks down into a fifth caste that is a result of the other four intermingling, as stated in the Mahānirvāna Tantra: “In the Kali Age, however, there are five castes – namely, Brāhmaṇa, Kṣatriya, Vaishya, Śūda, and Sāmānya.”17 The effect of the lack of dharma in the Kali Yuga can therefore be interpreted as the collapse of traditional law and the negation of all things ethical, moral, or spiritual. The goal of Kalki is not to simply slay Kali, but also to restore the dharma and to reinstate Vedic Traditions. Kali, on the other hand, spreads adharma by perverting religious discourse and creating unscrupulous scriptures. This is undoubtedly what Guénon has in mind when he speaks of the “counter-tradition” in the context of the Kali Yuga.

The reign of the ‘counter-tradition’ is in fact precisely what is known as the ‘reign of the Antichrist’, and the Antichrist, independently of all possible preconceptions, is in any case that which will concentrate and synthesize in itself for this task all the powers of the ‘counter-initiation’, whether it be conceived as an individual or as a collectivity.18

The adharmic counter-tradition of the Kali Yuga is also identified with rigid dogma and out of date fundamentalist thinking, notes Alain Daniélou, who writes that, “Visually symbols – that is, the various forms of writing – only begin to be used to fix certain elements of tradition when the evolution of the cycle announces the decline of knowledge.”19 He elaborates further on this stating that,

writing is an urban phenomenon, characteristic of the Kali Yuga. To freeze the teachings of “prophets” in books regarded as sacred is to paralyse the spirit of research; it fixes so-called established truths and tends to create blind faith instead of the search for knowledge.20

This is very much in line with depictions of Kali (metaphorically) possessing the minds of men to compose scriptures with ‘evil intent’. One only needs to read the daily news to see how ‘cherry-picked’ religious passages can be used to attack ethnic groups, sexes, and sexual orientations. The most obvious modern example would be Daesh deliberately distorting Islamic teachings to perpetuate political violence in both Europe and the Middle East. But it is only when all spiritual teachings have been eradicated that Kalki will be born, for the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam says that, “At the end of [the] Kali Yuga, when there exist no topics on the subject of God, even at the residences of so-called saints and respectable gentlemen of the three higher varas and when nothing is known of the techniques of sacrifice, even by word, at that time the Lord will appear as the supreme chastiser.”21 It is by restoring the dharma, the moral and spiritual essence of society, that Kalki is able to end the Kali Yuga. Kalki says this himself when he announces that, “I will then again establish Satya Yuga, and thus reinstate the principles of religion as they were before.”22

Events to Occur in the Kali Yuga

Alain Daniélou provides numerous examples of events that will occur in the Kali Yuga from the Liga Purāa and the Viṣṇu Purāa. The vast majority of these events are disasters which arise from human actions. All of the issues cited here by Daniélou arise from socio-cultural problems such as greed, lust, pride, arrogance, and political corruption which are the end result of the negation of dharma. As the dharma decreases, the vice and evil in humanity increases. The predictions for the Kali Yuga include the following:

They will be surrounded by pretentious, false philosophers.

There will be many beggars and unemployed people.

Rapes will be frequent.

Unqualified people will pass as experts in matters of morals and religion.

Women of good birth will abandon themselves to the desires of the basest of men and perform obscene acts.

Men will devote themselves to earning money; the richest will hold power.

Through the fault of the public authorities, many children will die.

People will accept theories promulgated by anyone as articles of faith.

In the Kali Yuga men will be without virtues, purity, or a sense of decency, and will know great hardship.23

The Mahānirvāna Tantra also states that, “Those born in the Kali Age are by their nature weak in intellect, and their minds are distracted by lust,” implying that the character of people is what causes them to adopt practices which are essentially harmful to both themselves and others.24 Due to the growing influence of materialism, greed will also become a source of admiration, and only those who are wealthy will be deemed worthy of respect. The Kalki Purāa states that,

In [the] Kali Yuga, a person with a lot of money will naturally be respected as a great soul. If a twice-born person earns his livelihood by lending money on interest, he will be considered a pillar of society.25

Other human created disasters associated with the Kali Yuga are clearly the result of bad governments. Taxes will increase and political figures will be self-serving rather than protectors of the people. There will also be mass migrations – something that is currently happening as people leave the Middle East for more prosperous and stable countries. These events found in the Kali Yuga are located in the discourse by Mārkaṇḍeya in the Mahābhārata where it is written that,

Rulers will become unreasonable: they will levy taxes unfairly.

Rulers will no longer see it as their duty to promote spirituality, or to protect their subjects: they will become a danger to the world.

People will start migrating, seeking countries where wheat and barley form the staple food source.

Not all of the events of the Kali Yuga will be purely caused by the immoral activities of humans though, for there will also be natural disasters at the close of the Yuga.

The God of the clouds will be inconsistent with the rains.

There will be many children born whose life expectancy is no more than sixteen years.

People who live for a hundred years will be few.

Water will be lacking, and in many regions people will watch the sky, hoping for rain.26

In light of recent warnings about climate change and critical levels of pollution in China, these events could also be interpreted as man-made, via neglect and the wanton use of natural resources that harm the environment. Regardless of whether the cause is natural or caused by people, these passages indicate severe climatic instability that afflicts the population and shortens the human life span. However, there is one disastrous event in the Kali Yuga which is definitely not man-made. There is a poignant description of a mass extinction event in the form of an under-water volcano.

Fire from the mouth of an underground serpent will burn the lower worlds, then the surface of the earth, and will set the atmosphere ablaze […] Surrounded by these circles of fire, all animate and inanimate beings will be destroyed.27 Huge ash clouds then cover earth […] Then, by means of interminable downpour, they will flood the whole earth with water. This torrential rain will swamp the earth for twelve years, and humanity shall be destroyed.28

It is worth mentioning that the Ring of Fire is currently very active, and that large earthquakes have become more frequent in recent years. Violent earthquakes have been particularly prolific in Japan and New Zealand – close to the site of what is a developing super-volcano growing on the ocean floor. Science predicts that this new super-volcano will be strong enough to eradicate most life in the Southern Hemisphere, and cover the world with ash clouds powerful enough to ruin the climate globally. Currently it is believed that the volcano will take at least thousands of years to form, despite the fact that Daniélou calculates the end of the Kali Yuga to be 2,442,29 a date which if correct places us very close to a catastrophic disaster.

All is not lost however. Although dharma is set to collapse according to these texts, some Traditions rewrote their teachings in order to adapt to the changing current of the Kali Yuga. The most well-known of these are the esoteric branches of Hinduism collectively referred to as Tantra. The Mahānirvāna Tantra says that, “when the Kali Age is in full sway for all castes, commencing with the Brāhmaṇas, Tāntrika rites are alone appropriate.”30 Daniélou repeats this sentiment stating that, “Only Tantric Yoga methods are efficacious in this age in which values are lost; the rites, asceticism and virtues of other ages are ineffective.”31 He also believes that the “teachings of Lakuliśa expose the principles of the Darśana (the paths of knowledge) in a simple and popular form full of imagery, and suggest patterns of behaviour suitable for the final stages of the Kali Yuga.”32 The most simple and effective method of resisting the influence of the Kali Yuga, however, is actually very easy and can be practiced by anyone, for the Mahānirvāna Tantra says that,

in the Kali Age alms are efficacious in the accomplishment of all things. The proper objects of such alms are the poor devoted to meritorious acts.33

Thus the humble act of charity can counter the woe, greed, and cruelty of the Kali Yuga. If anything can save humanity from the disastrous effects of the Kali Yuga, then it must be human action, performed in accordance with dharma. Even if this assumption is incorrect, it may still be enough to make the world a slighter brighter place in this, the darkest of all ages, and forestall the apocalypse for just a little while longer.

This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 10 No 2.

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  1. J. Godwin, ‘Decoding the Cycles of Time: When Does the Kali Yuga End?’, New Dawn 138 (May-June, 2013), 64
  2. R. Guénon, The Reign of Quantity & Signs of the Times, Sophia Perennis, 2004, 42
  3. B. G. Sidharth, The Celestial Key to the Vedas, Inner Traditions International, 1999, 60
  4. R. Guénon, The Reign of Quantity & Signs of the Times, 159
  5. R. Guénon, Traditional Forms & Cosmic Cycles, Sophia Perennis, 2004, 6
  6. J. Godwin, New Dawn 138, 65
  7. Śrī Kalki Purāa, trans. Bhumipati Das, B., ed. Das, P., (Tai Nitai Press), 5
  8. Śrī Kalki Purāa, 5
  9. Śrī Kalki Purāa, 5
  10. Śrī Kalki Purāa, 6
  11. B. G. Sidharth, 118
  12. Vyāsa, The Mahābhārata of Vyasa, trans. Lal, P., Vikas Publishing House, 1980, 129
  13. Vyāsa, The Mahābhārata of Krṣṇa-Dvaipāyana Vyāsa, trans. Kisari Mohan Ganguli, K. M., (c. 1883–1896), section XXXI
  14. Vyāsa, The Mahābhārata of Vyasa, trans. Lal, P., 128
  15. Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, 9:16:33
  16. Kalki Purāa, 2.45
  17. A. Avalon, The Tantra of the Great Liberation, Dover Publications, 1972
  18. R. Guénon, The Reign of Quantity & Signs of the Times, 270
  19. A. Daniélou, Shiva and the Primordial Tradition: From the Tantras to the Science of Dreams, Inner Traditions International Ltd., 2003, 103
  20. A. Daniélou, While the Gods Play, Inner Traditions International Ltd., 1987, 87
  21. Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, 2.7
  22. Śrī Kalki Purāa, 16
  23. While the Gods Play, 212-215
  24. The Tantra of the Great Liberation
  25. Śrī Kalki Purāa, 8-10
  26. While the Gods Play, 212-215
  27. Viṣṇu Purāa 1.8.18-31
  28. While the Gods Play, 218
  29. While the Gods Play, 197
  30. The Tantra of the Great Liberation
  31. A. Daniélou, Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus, Inner Traditions International Ltd., 1992, 235
  32. While the Gods Play, 120
  33. The Tantra of the Great Liberation

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