During my senior year of high school I took a course called “World Religions”. Over the four months in which the course ran, we studied five religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Out of all the things that I learned during the semester, the thing that resonated with me the most was the Hindu concept of time. In Hinduism, with each cycle of life we move closer to enlightenment. The number of cycles that you must pass through is dependent on karma. Once you have overcome karma, your body doesn’t need to pass onto another form and you are free to reach the kingdom of God. In this kingdom, time doesn’t exist. Time is a cyclical function of life and death; without the life and death cycle; there is no need for time.
In his book Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut establishes the possibility of being “unstuck in time”. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim is known for becoming “unstuck” and time traveling at random to different points in his life. Billy has no control over this and seems to accept his fate. The concept of time falls under a theme that is applied to many aspects of life in the novel: letting things be. Vonnegut shows us that death is inevitable, being abducted by aliens certainly is inevitable, and time is not something that can be controlled. Billy understands that the events of his life are unchangeable and decides to buckle up and enjoy the ride.
This concept of time relates to the Hindu conception in that they both are cyclical to some extent. In Vonnegut’s book, there is no linear pattern to Billy’s life, just events that he visits like places on a map. In Hinduism, the events of one life are insignificant; it’s about the cycle. You could move forward or backward on the cycle of time depending on karma. The key difference between these two ideas is that for Vonnegut, although time changes, the facts will always remain the same. You will always die in the same way, you’ll always marry the same person, and there’s no reason to waste energy trying to change things that are set in stone. In Hinduism, you can manipulate aspects of your cycle depending on behavior. With good behavior, you can make your journey to enlightenment shorter or you may be reborn into a better life. With bad behavior, you can move backwards in the cycle.
In both of these understandings, time is fluid. It does not follow the linear model that we are so accustomed to. Vonnegut and Hindu scholars aren’t the only ones who reject this strict idea of time. It’s very much a Western idea that each day will pass by with 24 hours, each week with 7 days, and nothing in the universe will change it. The truth of the matter is, time is imaginary. Someone had to sit down and make up how long a second was or how many hours to put in a day. The restrictions that we feel based on time are all societal constructions. “There’s just not enough time in the day” is a common saying in Western culture, but in reality there’s as much time as you want. In Hinduism, God is the only one that is truly timeless. Once you’ve come to understand the nature of the universe, you will also be freed from the restrictions of time. In Slaughterhouse Five, the Talmadorians, the aliens that abduct Billy, are also free from the barriers of time. They experience everything simultaneously and in many dimensions. What both of these concepts seem to be telling us is that time is merely a human fantasy. Once we see past ourselves and are aware of the bigger picture, time will cease to exist.