Time, the Ages and Human Action: A Comparison of the Greco-Roman and Indian Approaches

Hesiod’s Works and Days presents the world as having five ages which pass over time from a Golden Age down to inferior ones. Later Greek and Roman poets such as Vergil develop and exploit this theme, often for political ends, and present the Golden Age as something which can be restored, and which will ensure prosperity. Human and divine agency lie at the heart of this change. Writers such as Seneca also view the development of sailing with the Argo as the end of the Golden Age: this advance marks the end of something special, again associated with human activity.

Such myths have much in common with ideas in the East, presented in Sanskrit texts such as the Laws of Manu, the Mahabharata and the elements of the Vedic hymns. In contrast, however, the concept of time in the Indian sources is a cyclical one: these ages pass through a cycle, which will repeat itself. Human agency is less significant, a much larger timespan is considered, and the vision of time is part of a wider conception of the universe and its identity.

This paper will take a comparative approach, exploring how the accounts in the Sanskrit sources can shed further light on the Greco-Roman tradition. It will also look at the contexts within which the notion of the ages are developed, and the ways in which these contexts affect the interpretation of this mythical tradition. At its heart, it will consider the notion of decline over time and its manipulation for poetic and political ends. The absence of such elements in the Sanskrit tradition throws key features of the Greco-Roman tradition into greater relief.