What is Time?


Triggered by e-mail conversations with Bhagawati where the question arose ‘What is time?’, Bodhisagar felt inspired to write about his understanding.

Hmmm… What is time? I will take you through my life and how I learned through my times and how I updated my definitions and understanding of this god forsaken question.

I was 15 when I first pondered on this question, “What is time?” I had the book A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking in my hand with illustrations of a concept called ‘Arrow of Time’, and then I also had his book Universe in a Nutshell, which contained a beautiful illustration of how Time can either be a straight line (like an arrow always moving forward), or a ‘closed surface’ – much like a bagel.

The bottom image shows a train moving in a straight line resembling time, showing we can move through time only in one direction, and this train will go on and on to infinity and beyond. The other image shows a train on a ‘complex but closed surface’ – a train on such a surface of time will come again and again to the same point, implying time is a cyclical journey of our universe. I used to ponder on this image, trying to comprehend the eternal mystery of it all. And no matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t get an answer.

Surface of time

I used to think I don’t know enough physics and science and thus have no answer, but an intuitive feeling that I already know was always close to my heart. How can I tell you, how much I wish I knew that in my ignorance I was closest to ‘knowing’ what Time is, rather than the knowledge I have now of what Time is.

As I moved on to High School, I had learned this formal definition of time:

“One second is the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom.”

But as you can see clearly that this is the definition of a ‘second’ and not Time itself, I was more annoyed than satisfied to know this meaning. However, there is a very strange clue in this definition, even the second is defined as an activity of something else; it is impossible to define a stand alone ‘second’ even for the physicist.

By this time I had learnt this trick in physics, that is, if you have to define something you write it terms of something such as:

‘Time equals to (T = )’ something something, and I came up with many definitions, in absolute ground basics, from thermodynamics to quantum electrodynamics, and again each time I ended up defining it in terms of something else happening. But the definition in terms of ‘change of entropy’ as in thermodynamics clicked deep inside me, as it resonated with Stephen Hawking’s Arrow of Time I had learned about some years back and what Osho taught me after a decade. This contained my second clue, namely that time comes when there is changing space around you, as time needs a reference. By this time I had heard another definition, ‘Time is God’s way to keep things from happening at once’ (Anonymous), but it didn’t make much sense at the time.

Time is an illusion,
there is no time,
there is no such a thing as time,
time is a human
psychological construction
which arises out of our need
to make sense of
the changing universe around us.

This took me to the next thing, our closest tricksters, the biggest illusionists and puppeteers ‘Clocks’. We think clocks tell us time, we think clocks measure time, we think we know what time it is by looking at the clock, but the inherent irony is clocks don’t know time themselves. The objective reference of one clock is another clock, and the reference of all clocks is the motion of planet Earth around the Sun, and the reference to that is our own perception that the planet is moving. So yet again what came into the picture is the ‘human perception of a changing universe around us’. So this was my new definition, ‘Time is that entity which gives us sense of a changing universe around us.’

Pillars of Creation

And then came into my life, the colossus Prof. Albert Einstein, who changed forever our perception of the world around us, by bringing the concept of relativity into the picture. This assured me of my own understanding of time by thinking through reference frames. Prof. Einstein said space and time are not two distinct things, there is no space separate from time, or rather to put it correctly there is no ‘time’ separate from ‘space’. There is a space-time continuum, and everything is relative, which means, you and I have different times to begin with, but the difference is so small that human begins can’t discern it. For example, a women travelling in a space shuttle right now is in the future of both of us as she is travelling faster than us, and as she will approach the speed of light, she will move farther in the future. These are the conclusions of the relativity theory.

But again if you ponder deeply, what appears is a changing material world, a changing universe; what is pertinent in time is ‘Change’. And it is also concealed to physicists or rather the entities that physicists purposefully ignore, and that is, human beings. After all it is human perception which attaches a specific state to matter and to assign it as a future state. Maybe I am getting confusing here, but ‘Time’ needs ‘Change’ to define it and ‘Time’ needs us to see that very ‘Change’ to define it, and we – as you know – are ‘Consciousness’.

This took me to my final lap. One fine morning I was listening to Osho’s discourse on the Heart Sutra of Gautama the Buddha, and he explains thus,

Buddha says, The truth is that when you see a dancer,
there is no dancer but only a dance.
When you see a river, there is no river but only rivering.
When you see a tree, there is no tree but only a treeing.
When you see love, there is nobody who is a lover
but only loving.
Life is a process.

This shook the ground beneath my feet; everything about my understanding of time fell into place. At that moment, everything I knew, the rate of change of entropy, electro-dynamics, mathematical topologies, everything fell into place, like looking back and connecting dots. This gave me my now held understanding of ‘what time is’, and that is:

Time is an illusion, there is no time, there is no such a thing as time, time is a human psychological construction which arises out of our need to make sense of the changing universe around us. We have made ‘Time’, we have invented ‘Time’; ‘Time’ is there because we are capable to form memories and look back into the past, Time is there because we are capable to think of the future, predict the future, create the future in our minds. Time exists not, but only in our minds.

And further to this, my understanding was assured when I listened to Osho speak about Jesus who said, “In the kingdom of heaven time will be no more.” This completes the circle: from your being conscious of your world you create time, and from your being conscious of yourself you escape from time.

So to end with, I can’t tell you what time is honey, but I think through this soundtrack, Hans Zimmer has got closest to telling what ‘time is’.


Soundtrack of ‘Inception’, music by Hans Zimmer

How I wish I would have been in Bali and on a warm winter night you would have asked me this question, and I would have pointed you to the ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the night sky and asked you to look for yourself…the eternal mystery of it all.


Bodhisagar TNBodhisagar was born in Pune, India, and is currently doing his PhD in Robotics at Bournemouth University, England. After experiencing a satori looking at the night sky, he set out on his quest to find truth. He went to England in order to find the truth within the human brain; he worked as a researcher in Brain-Computer interfacing and studied Cybernetics. With all stones turned and left unanswered by science he took sannyas in 2013 in Wales, England. xspiritualatheist.wordpress.com

Illustration ‘Surface of Time’ by Yatri (aka Malcolm Godwin) from the book by Stephen Hawking, ‘Universe in a Nutshell’

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