Yuga Definitions in Mahabharata

Created by Jijith Nadumuri at 16 Jul 2010 11:22 and updated at 01 Aug 2010 09:48

See Also Yugas-Part1 Yugas-Part2 Yugas-Part3 Yugas-Part4 Yugas-Part5
12,000 BC Krita-Yuga1 Treta-Yuga1 Dwapara-Yuga1 Kali-Yuga1 2,000 BC
2000 BC Krita-Yuga2 Treta-Yuga2 Dwapara-Yuga2 Kali-Yuga2 500 AD

For convenience the article about Yuga is divided into five parts.

  1. Emergence of the Yuga System
  2. Yuga Definitions in Mahabharata
  3. Yugas mapped to Common Era
  4. Events in Chatur Yuga 1
  5. Events after Chatur Yuga 1

This is the second part of the article about Yuga, where we will discuss on the various Yuga definitions found in Mahabharata.

Hanuman's definition of Yugas

Mbh.3.148 Hanuman's narration on Yugas

Vana Parva mentions about an encounter of Bhima with Hanuman, (of Ramayana fame). Hanuman was a member of the Vanara tribe who lived in southern India (lower latitudes). They were good observers of equatorial sky and a very ancient tribe who preserved the memory of ancient ages. They were aware of the Yuga system used to record time-periods of the order of thousands of years. They were also aware of the nature of various Yugas that has passed. Bhima probably met a member of the Vanara tribe in which Hanuman belonged. Hanuman defined Yugas based on their characteristics. He was silent about their durations.

As per this Hanuman, following are the characteristics of each Yuga. In the Krita age, there were neither Devas, nor Asuras, nor Gandharvas, nor Yakshas, nor Rakshasas, nor Nagas. And there was no buying and selling. The Sama, the Rich, and the Yajus did not exist.In Treta Yuga, sacrifices are introduced. Sacrifices and various religious observances come into existence. In Dwapara Yuga Veda became divided into four parts. Some men retained the knowledge of the four Vedas, and some of three Vedas, and some of one Veda, while others do not know even the Richs. Shastras becoming thus divided, acts become multiplied. Largely influenced by passion, people engage in asceticism and gifts. From their incapacity to study the entire Veda, it becomes divided into several parts. Kali Yuga is mentioned here as the beginning of iron age.

Krita Yuga, the unsophisticated era

From this narration we can infer that in Krita age people were not differentiated into tribes like Devas, Asuras, Gandharvas, Yakshas, Rakshasas or Nagas. Probably they existed as an undifferentiated single tribe. Probably the Vanaras, who were a very ancient tribe, encountered these tribes only in later periods. There is a speculation that Vanaras were actually a homo species like Homo Erectus or some other human sub-species who had more primitive features compared to homo-sapiens-sapiens. If this is the case, then Hanuman is hinting a the arrival of other human tribes or other human sub-species into the regions (peninsular India) occupied by the Vanaras. Such events can happen in a period as early as 50000 BC to as late as 10000 BC. Vedas were being formed then with no differentiation into Rik, Yajus and Sama. Probably in this period Rig Veda and Atharva Veda existed but not named or recognized as such. Atharva Veda was more Shaman like in nature focusing on the physical well being of individuals. Rig Veda started of as nature worship and became more philosophical in nature, focusing on an individuals quest for the ultimate reality.

Treta Yuga, the era of sacrifices

Sacrifices were introduced in the Treta Yuga. Yajur Veda is associated with sacrifices. Hence we can assume that Yajur Veda too emerged in Treta Yuga. Along with the sacrifices the priesthood also emerged. Thus the society become more complex. Worship of God became a public activity involving kings and priests. A sacrifice ceremony involved large number of people, usually employed by a king for that purpose.

Dwapara Yuga, the era of divided Vedas

The four fold differentiation of Vedas occurred in Dwapara Yuga. Priest class too differentiated into various specializations. Some became specialized in Rig Veda, some in Yajur Veda and some in Sama Veda. Yajur Veda was a specialization of the use of Vedas in connection with sacrifices. Sama Veda was a specialization of the use of Vedas in connection with Soma sacrifices (a category of sacrifices) focusing on the melody of the recitation. Both Yajur Veda and Sama Veda contains Rig Vedic hymns.

Kali Yuga, the chaotic era

Kali Yuga is considered as the iron age or the most sophisticated age, not necessarily having anything to do with the usage of iron. In India iron was in use much earlier time due to its hot climate compared to high latitude countries. In India stones, bronze and iron technologies coexisted for a long period of time unlike in other parts of the world. Appearance of bronze and iron technologies in India predated their occurrence in most of other parts of the world.

Sanjaya's definition of Yugas

Mbh.6.10 Sanjaya's definition of Yugas:-

Sanjaya was the minister and attendant of to Kuru king Dhritarashtra. The core of Mahabharata, viz. Jaya was developed by Vyasa as a dialog between Sanjaya and Dhritarashtra. He was the principle narrator of the whole of the Kurukshetra war, which is the core incident mentioned in Mahabharata. Sanjaya defines the four Yugas like this:-

The Yuga that sets in first is Krita. after the expiry of Krita comes Treta; after expiry of Treta comes Dwapara; and after that last of all, sets in Kali. Four thousand years, are reckoned as the measure of life, in the Krita epoch. Three thousand years is the period in Treta. At present in Dwapara, persons live on Earth for two thousand years. In Kali, however, there is no fixed limit of life's measure. In the Krita age, men are born and beget numerous children. In the Treta age, all the Kshatriya kings were emperors ruling from sea to sea. When Dwapara sets in, all the four orders born become capable of great exertion and desirous of conquering one another. The men born in Kali, are endued with little energy, highly wrathful, covetous, and untruthful. The portion that remains, of this the Dwapara age, is small.

Corruption of Sanjaya's definition

This definition is in line with the Chatur-Yuga definition containing 10000 years. However later redactors of Mahabharata had introduced one corruption into Sanjaya's definition by misinterpreting the duration of Yugas as the duration of the age of people living in each Yuga! This misinterpretation probably arose during the period of astronomer Aryabhata (2640 BC or 600 AD) who gave larger lengths for each Yuga of the order of 100,000 years. Aryabhata's Yuga definition was based on rare planetary alignments that occurred in once 100,000 or more years. Hence the large Yuga lengths. After him, people accepted that as the definition of Yuga. They then forgot about the older Yuga definition and interpreted Sanjaya's original 10,000 year Chatur-Yuga as an error. They then wrongly modified the verses to mean that in Krita age people lived 4000 yeara, in Treta 3000 years, in Dwapara 2000 years and in Kali 1000 years. Since Kali age was considered by these redactors as the current age and since they cannot prove that people are living for 1000 years in their age, they made a final modification:- In Kali, however, there is no fixed limit of life's measure.

Removing this gross corruption in the verses, we get the correct definition of Yuga that was accepted during the period of Kurukshetra war. This definition is thus:- Krita Yuga 4000 years; Treta Yuga 3000 years; Dwapara Yuga 2000 years and Kali Yuga 1000 years. Sanjaya also mentioned about "the small portion of Dwapara Yuga that is remaining", when he was making this statement (at the start of the Kurukshetra War). By this he was probably referring to the 36 years that remained for the end of Dwapara Yuga.

Krita, The age of Prajapatis

Like Hanuman, Sanjaya too describe the nature of each Yuga. Krita Yuga was the period of matriarchs and patriarchs (Prajapatis) who had numerous children. Men like Daksha, Kasyapa, Kardama and Manu beget several children upon several wives and thus were called Praja-patis, the owner (Pati) of many children (Praja). They were originators of many famous races. Similarly matriarchs like Aditi, Diti, Danu and Kala too had many children and they were progenitors of several tribes and lineages.

Treta Yuga, The age of Empires

Is there any truth in that in Treta Yuga there were many emperors? There is. But they were not like the empires during the recorded history. They were large territories with small population. Treta Yuga rulers were emperors since there were only few rulers then and human population was very limited. Most of land were vast mountains and forests. If we analyze the kingdoms mentioned in Ramayana (representative of Treta Yuga) and Mahabharata (representative of Dwapara Yuga) we find that Mahabharata contains 10 times more number of kingdoms mentioned in it. The total area occupied by the numerous Mahabharata-kingdoms were same as that occupied by the lesser number of kingdoms mentioned in Ramayana . Ravana's empire stretched from Lanka to as far as Janasthana (close to Godavari river. That was the whole of peninsular India. Kishkindha, the kingdom of the Vanaras contained within it. Vanaras in Kishkindha however controlled all the Vanara tribes in peninsular India and beyond. Thus the Vanaras too had their empire though it overlapped with the Rakshasa empire of Ravana. Rama of Ayodhya directly controlled the Kosala kingdom but indirectly the whole of land from Takshasila in the west to Vanga in the east. Thus the territories or Ravana, Rama, Vali and Sugriva (Vanara Rulers) extended from sea to sea.

Dwapara Yuga, The age of Kings

In Dwapara Yuga kings and kingdoms multiplied. In a passage where Mahabharata mention about military expeditions of Pandava generals viz. Bhima and Sahadeva, we find that the Kosala kingdom was divided into 8 or 10 parts. In Dwapara Yuga it was difficult for a king to control vast territories. Yudhisthira, the Pandava king is mentioned as achieving this difficult feat for a very short period of time. In Dwapara Yuga the society was more chaotic than predecessor Yugas and political scenario was more volatile. No king can stay as emperors for long time or control large territories for long periods like it was possible during Treta Yuga. Hence we find the correct description by Sanjaya, that the kings were desirous of conquering one another. It was also then the four-orders (Brahmana, Kshatriya, [[mbh:Vaisya]]] and Sudra) became well defined and became a prominent feature of the ancient Indian society.

Kali Yuga, The age of high complexity

In most of the Yuga definitions we find that Kali Yuga is highly criticized or shown in a negative light. What is the truth behind it? I consider that it was the indirect acknowledgement of the increase in entropy (chaos or disorder) of the system (society). The society of Krita Yuga was very simple. There were no kings or emperors but only chiefs and Prajapatis. There were no organized religion but only individual seeking God. In Treta entropy of the society increased with emergence of empires, kings, sacrifices, priests etc. In Dwapara it increased further with numerous kings fighting each other for dominance. Fight of Rama and Ravana of Treta Yuga mentioned in Ramayana was a fight between two tribes. Fight of Kauravas and Pandavas in Dwapara was but a fight between brothers! Even brothers were politically polarized and fought for dominance. In Kali Yuga society becomes still more chaotic and system became more complex. The four orders of Dwapara now develop into 12 to 128 caste. Numerous deities and modes of worship never seen in Dwapara arose in Kali Yuga. The wrathfulness, covetousness and untruthfulness too are signs of a highly chaotic society.

Markandeya's definition of Yugas

Mbh.3.187 Markandeya's definition of Yugas

As we have seen before, sage Markandeya was one of the ancient Indian astronomers. Due to his grasp on the concept of Yugas, whose durations ran into thousands of years, many people of his time who were not astronomers, thought that he lived for many thousand years! Thus a myth was generated that Markandeya is immortal. In Vana Parva of Mahabharata, Markandeya is mentioned as conversing with Yudhisthira. Vana Parva chapters contains later added material. Hence Markandeya could be a contemporary of Yudhisthira or probably lived a few centuries after him. The following is Markandeya's definition of Yuga:-

Four thousand years have been said to constitute the Krita Yuga. Its dawn also, as well as its eve, hath been said to comprise four hundred years. The Treta-Yuga is said to comprise three thousand years, and its dawn, as well as its eve, is said to comprise three hundred years. The Yuga that comes next is called Dwapara, and it hath been computed to consist of two thousand years. Its dawn, as well as its eve, is said to comprise two hundred years. The next Yuga, called Kali, is said to comprise one thousand years and its dawn, as well as eve, is said to comprise one hundred years. Know, O king, that the duration of the dawn is the same as that of the eve of a Yuga. And after the Kali Yuga is over, the Krita Yuga comes again. A cycle of the Yugas thus comprised a period of twelve thousand years. A full thousand of such cycles would constitute a day of Brahma.

ChaturYugas of 1000, 10000 and 12000 years

Note the mention of eve and dawn. These seems to be a variant of the oldest Yuga definition which defines a Yuga as 1000 years. Somebody at some point of time divided this 1000 years in the ratio of 4:3:2:1. This created short sub-Yugas with a Krita Yuga of 400 years, Treata of 300 years, Dwapara of 200 years and Kali of 100 years. The popular variant of the oldest Yuga definition was a 10000 year Yuga definition in which the basic Yuga (1000 years) is equated to Kali Yuga. Duration of Kali Yuga was then multiplied (rather than dividing) to derive the duration of other Yugas using the ratio of 4:3:2:1.

Markandeya combined these two Yuga definitions (10000 year long Chatur-Yuga) and (1000 year long Chatur-Yuga). The 1000 year long Chatur-Yuga occurred twice as dawn and eve. Thus he defined a 12,000 year long Yuga. Probably this was done to match the Chatur-Yuga with the 12 year long Yuga (Brihaspati Yuga) defined based on the revolution of planet Jupiter.

Invasion event in Kali Yuga

Apart from this Yuga definition, Markandeya also provides information of an invasion event occurred in Kali Yuga:- Numerous Mleccha kings then rule over the earth! The Andhhas, the Sakas, the Pulindas, the Yavanas, the Kamvojas, the Valhikas and the Abhiras, then become, possessed of bravery and the sovereignty of the earth. This event probably occurred during or before the period of Markandaya. We also know from other narrations in Mahabharata, that the Abhiras indeed attacked Arjuna and defeated him and the remnant of the Yadavas leaving the destroyed Dwaraka and heading towards Indraprastha. The invasion of (North) India by the above mentioned tribes in Kali Yuga (after Kurukshetra war, not before authoring Rig Veda as described by AIT/AMT theorists!) is also repeated at several places in Mahabharata. Hence this is a reliable information and a real historic event.

Kunti's definition of Yugas

Mbh.5.132 Kunti's definition of Yugas

Kunti the mother of the Pandavas gives an interesting definition for the Yugas, which is not based on astronomy but based on the nature of human society. This definition makes the king as the one who responsible for the setting of various Yugas. A bad king can cause Kali Yuga and a good king can cause Krita Yuga. Kunti told to Krishna, as a message for her son Yudhisthira the following:-

When the king properly abides by the penal code, without making any portion of it a dead letter, then that best of periods called the Krita Yuga sets in. Let not this doubt be thine, viz, whether the era is the cause of the king, or the king the cause of the era, for know this to be certain that the king is the cause of the era. It is the king that creates the Krita, the Treta, or the Dwapara age. Indeed, it is the king that is the cause of also the fourth Yuga viz, the Kali.

This seems to be another school of thought regarding Yugas existed in ancient period, probably by those who were influential people but not astronomers or mathematicians. This definition might have active during the period of chaos when it was difficult to ascertain the correct Yuga by astronomical means, due to lack of good astronomers or due to loss of traditions of astronomical observations.

Celestial Yugas

Santi Parva (book 12) of Mahabharata contains several passages that were added to Mahabharata at later periods, from 100 years to 3500 years after Kurukshetra war. Here we can find the 12000 year Chatur-Yuga as enlarged by redefining the year as the year of the celestials. Mbh 12.302 Vasistha's definition of Yugas:- Twelve thousand years, according to the measure of the celestials, make a Yuga, four such Yugas taken a thousand times, make a Kalpa which measures one day of Brahman Brahman's night also, O king, is of the same measure. This definition is found in a dialog between Vasistha (probably a sage in the line of Vasistha) and king Karala of Janaka's race. This dialog is embedded within the Bhishma-Yudhisthira dialog.

Karala seems to have some connection with Kerala an ancient Indian kingdom and a modern state of India (Kerala). Astronomer Aryabhata too have some connection with Kerala. The Twelve thousand years as per measure of celestials is close to Aryabhata's Yuga definition. This is also the definition found in most of the Puranas. A major portion of the Puranas were authored after Kurukshetra war, in Kali Yuga.

Second Krita Yuga


The following passage is added to Mahabharata as a dialog between Vishnu and the Devas (demi-gods), embedded in a dialog between Vyasa and disciples, embedded in the Vaisampayana-Janamejaya dialog which is finally embedded in the Sauti-Saunaka dialog. Since this is mentioned in Santi Parva this is describing a post Kurukshetra War situation. Thus we find the mention of sacrifices even in Krita Yuga:-

This present epoch that has been set to run is the foremost of all epochs and should be known by the name of Krita. In this Yuga living creatures should not be slain in the sacrifices that may be performed. In this age, ye celestials, Righteousness will flourish in its entirety. After this age will come the epoch called Treta. The Vedas, in that Yuga, will lose one quarter. Only three of them will exist. In the sacrifice that will be performed in that age, animals, after dedication with the aid of sacred mantras, will be slain. As regards Righteousness again, it will lose one quarter; only three quarters thereof will flourish. On the expiration of the Treta will come the mixed Yuga known by the name of Dwapara. In that Yuga, Righteousness will lose two quarters and only two quarters thereof will flourish. Upon the expiration of Dwapara the Yuga that will set in will be called Kali yuga which will come under the influence of Tisya constellation. Righteousness will lose full three quarters. Only a quarter thereof will exist in all places.

Tisya constallation

The Tisya constellation mentioned here is same as the Pushya constellation. It is used to define a 12 year long Brihaspati Yuga, which occurs every 12 years. When Sun, Moon and Jupiter are aligned in Pushya constallation, that is considered as the start of a 12 year long Brihaspati Yuga. This is also the basis of Kumbhamela. Hence it is not of much significance.

Krita Yuga 2

The Krita Yuga mentioned here occurred probably after the Kali Yuga that succeeded the Kurukshetra War (a Dwapara-Yuga-I event). In this Krita Yuga (Krita-Yuga-II) sacrifices were performed. There were no animal sacrifices though. Seeds (Aja) were used for sacrifices during this period. In the subsequent Treta Yuga (Treta-Yuga-II) the meaning of the word Aja changed. It was used to denote goat. Animals like goats were then sacrificed. In Krita-Yuga-II Vedas were counted as four:- Rik, Yajus, Sama and Atharva. In Treta-Yuga-II Atharva Veda was excluded and only Rik, Yajur and Sama were counted as the three Vedas.

Increase of entropy

The mention of "righteousness loosing one quarter in every Yuga" indicates the increase of entropy (aka disorder or chaos) of the society as time progress. (Entropy increases in the forward direction of time from past to future). It also indirectly indicates the ratio 4:3:2:1 by which Yugas were usually divided. Hence the second set of Yugas that ensued after the last Kali Yuga too seems to have their duration in the ratio 4:3:2:1 as against the possibility of their duration being in the ratio 1:1:1:1.

Yugas after Kurukshetra War event

The reader may be surprised to know that there were a second set of Chatur-Yugas after Kurkshetra war. But many references (like the one mentioned above) in Mahabharata and various Puranas points to this possibility. The exact mapping of these Yugas into modern time-frame (Common Era) will be discussed in the next part of this article viz. Yugas mapped to Common Era. In a brief, Dwapara-Yuga-I containing the Kurukshetra-War-event ended by around 3000 BC. The Kali-Yuga-I that occurred after Kurukshetra War started since 3000 BC and ended by around 2000 BC. What happened after this Kali Yuga is highly ambiguous. Based on various textual evidences in Mahabharata and Puranas, there occurred a Krita-2, Treta-2, Dwapara-2 and Kali-2 Yugas of 1000 years each in 1:1:1:1 ratio, or several (at-least four) 1000 year long Chatur-Yugas containing with them Krita, Treta, Dwapara and Kali Yugas having their duration in the ratio of 4:3:2:1. There are also people who believe that we had a 4000 year long Krita-Yuga-II from 2000 BC to 2000 AD and that since 2000 AD we are in Treta-Yuga-II! This however does not match with the events mentioned in the Mahabharata and the Puranas or with the nature of the society.

See Also Yugas-Part1 Yugas-Part2 Yugas-Part3 Yugas-Part4 Yugas-Part5
12,000 BC Krita-Yuga1 Treta-Yuga1 Dwapara-Yuga1 Kali-Yuga1 2,000 BC
2000 BC Krita-Yuga2 Treta-Yuga2 Dwapara-Yuga2 Kali-Yuga2 500 AD

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