Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MILLENNIUM : January 23, 2000
Is this the new millennium?
The author is an eminent historian and writer.
It is perhaps as well to remember that the hype which surrounds the millennium, to be celebrated either in AD 2000 or 2001, is around the millennium associated with only one calendar. The coming of this millennium is calculated from the Gregorian calendar, the evolution of which followed the previous Julian calendar connected with Caesar, as well as some events linked to the life of Christ and the concerns of Pope Gregory XIII. Who knows therefore, whether there isn't another calendar waiting in the wings?
Despite the widespread use of the Gregorian calendar in today's world, there are many other calendars which continue to be used in daily life and their millennia have other points of time. The Buddhist calendar for example, is dated from the mahaparinirvana or death of the Buddha, about which date there is a controversy. The generally accepted dates are 486/483 BC, although 544 BC is also used. On the basis of these dates, the Buddhist calendar entered its second millennium in about the 6th-5th century of the Gregorian calendar. The start of the second millennium of the Islamic calendar, calculated on the date of Mohammed's flight from Mecca to Medina in AD 622 would have been much later. Thus between the Buddhists and the Muslims, a substantial part of the world's population frequently observes a different calendar. And there are many others as well.
There is one Hindu calendar in which the present age - the Kaliyuga - is the fourth and last segment of a larger time cycle - the mahayuga which has a span of 4,320,000 human years. This is more a part of cosmology than a working calendar. The larger cycle is constituted of the four smaller ones - Krita, Treta, Dvapara and Kali, names borrowed in three cases from the throws at dice. This would suggest a linking of time with fortune and fate, a link that is common to many cultures. There is a neat pattern of each age lasting respectively, 4800, 3600, 2400 and 1200 divine years which includes the additional dawn and twilight period of one-tenth of the main timespan of the yuga. A divine year consists of 360 human years. The periods decline by arithmetic progression. This is sometimes expressed through the analogy of a bull standing on four legs at the beginning of time but losing one leg at the start of each of the four yugas. The beginning of the Kaliyuga is calculated as the equivalent of about 3102 BC and therefore still has many millennia. In some versions there is a catastrophic end to the current major cycle before the start of the next. Other versions suggest a gentler transition.
It is true that the Gregorian calendar now dominates the functioning of the modern world. It even dominates the malfunctioning if the Y2K factor becomes non-compliant. It would seem to be everybody's millennium. But a closer look suggests variations. The Indian State for instance, uses two dating systems - the Gregorian calendar as well as the system based on a historical date, namely, the Shaka era of AD 78 which some associate with the accession of Kanishka. If we go by the latter, we still have to wait 78 years for the millennium.
Another alternative, even more widely used in some activities is the era which starts in 58 BC. This was variously known as the Krita, Malava or Vikrama samvat. What it commemorates remains uncertain. Krita simply means that which is established. Malava suggests an association with the people of that name. Vikrama is popularly thought to be referring to the Gupta king who took the title of Vikramaditya, but since he ruled some 400 years later, it is unlikely to have been associated with him. It has recently been linked with the Scytho-Parthian king Azes I. On the basis of this era the millennium has already occurred and passed unnoticed. Eras were important to the calculation of time since they were tied into astronomical calculations, memorialising an event or legitimising a ruler. What then are we legitimising in the celebration of the millennium?
If the date of the millennium varies for different people, what does have a similarity of meaning is that which we associate with the concept: the millennium as the end of a major period of time and the beginning of another. There was a time when for Christians and Buddhists the millennium symbolised the coming of a millenarian dream, a luminous future based on a new world order where perhaps the poor would finally inherit the earth.
The word "millennium" is drawn from Christian belief. It is referred to in the last book in the New Testament of the Bible, the Revelations of John, which is a book of prophecies. It is said that Jesus Christ will return to rule the earth for a thousand years, a rule that will reinstate virtue and wipe away the tears of the oppressed. This was in a sense compensation for the persecution suffered by the early Christians in Roman times. By extension the term millennium has come to be used for any period of a thousand years. Thus historians have happily appropriated the decimal ordering for periodising long histories into millennia and centuries.
What is essential to the millennium is not merely a play on calendrical numbers but the hope that the period holds for the oppressed to be relieved of their oppression. And who will do this but a saviour-figure. The concept of the return of the saviour-figure at the end of a time period or for a specific time period is common to many traditions and seems to come into prominence in the early centuries AD when there is a blossoming of such figures in many of the religions of the time. This might have had to do with the common universe of discourse which in those days reached out from India to the eastern Mediterranean and to central Asia, an area where the exchange of goods paralleled that of ideas. Time concepts, cosmologies and theories on astronomy were part of this exchange.
Zoroastrianism calculated time in set periods of a few thousand years, the last of which would conclude with the coming of the saviour Saoshyant, born of a virgin. Good and evil will be separated with Saoshyant leading the forces of good against those of evil. The dead will be raised and there will be a judgment to which everyone will be subjected.
The Buddhist tradition had earlier written about the coming of the future Buddha, the Buddha Maitreya. The Pali Canon states that Maitreya/ Metteyya will be born in a high status brahman family. He will live as a householder for eight thousand years, after which he will renounce his social obligations. This was in effect a brief period since a human lifetime will consist of 80,000 years. The coming of the Buddha Maitreya was now given prominence not only in the Buddhist writing of the time but also in Buddhist art. That Buddhism would decline 500 or 1000 years after the death of the Buddha was being predicted by some, as also the oppression of those faithful to the Buddhist doctrine. Others linked this to the inevitable downward swing in the cycle of time. The Buddha Maitreya will re-establish the doctrine, install the faithful and usher in a period of righteousness.
A similar, although not identical idea is also evident in Vaishnava belief. The description of the end of the Kali age carries almost a contemporary interest. It is a time when property will confer rank, the strongest caste will reign, and those unable to bear the burden of famine and taxation and the greed of their rulers will flee to the mountains and live on the produce of the wild. A lifetime will now be reduced to only 23 years. When the condition has deteriorated almost to the point of extinction, Kalkin will be born as the tenth avatara of Vishnu. In the last phase of the Kaliyuga, when the world has been turned upside down, the brahman Kalkin will come sword in hand and riding a white horse, to restore society to what it should be - each caste in its appointed place. This was one definition of reinstating virtue and justice. The return of utopian conditions marks the beginning of another mahayuga.
A new time period, born out of the old, is associated with the coming of a righteous rule. But prior to that, a period of persecution or decline of the doctrine or of the order associated with particular religious or social traditions is envisaged. This need not have actually happened, but it is required for the coming of the utopia. The downward swinging and the upward turn are inevitable in cyclic theories of time, but it is even more interesting that they occur in what is taken to be the linear time of the Christian tradition.
The Christian and the Buddhist millenarian dreams are concerned with relieving the persecution of the poor and the oppressed and rewarding those who have been faithful in adversity. The Vaishnava dream relates to restoring the rights of those castes which have lost out in the change and those who have fled can return to utopian conditions. These millenarian dreams seem to have faded from the projection of the current millennium, on the cusp of which we now stand. This projection remains unconcerned with the ethics and justice expected of the New World, but is aglow with what it sees as the potentialities of technological advance and the magical profits of the market, all enticingly packaged in commercial advertising and the attractions of consumerism.
Whatever its calendrical source may be, the millennium has a meaning other than being just a notch in the time period of the universe. It is the point at which we should pause and consider the human condition.
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