Kali Yuga: The Era of Darkness
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from childhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” — Bhagavad Gita As It Is 2:13
I just caught up over the past week with a dear friend of mine who works in the other Portland (Maine) as a minister, addictions counselor, and educator. Besides “growing old,” he told me the political and cultural environment we’re in was bringing him down. I shared with him that I had a few struggles this past winter, related to similar stresses coming from the emotional labor that accompanies such heavy work. A Christian, he openly admitted his worry that we are living in the end times.
I wrote him back and said we most definitely are, and that’s okay. Everything is going according to a greater plan, as scripture from Biblical and Vedic traditions reveal, our own selfish attachments to ego and self-preservation aside.
The Revelation of John of Patmos is a testament to a future society in decline. He authored letters to contemporary churches, urging them to stay strong in their faith, making sure to stay wary of hypocrites and liars.
I also shared with my friend a passage from the Srimad Bhagavatam, known in the West as the Krishna Purana, a detailed account of Lord Krishna’s pastimes and activities. The final volume of the Srimad Bhagavatam includes a description of Kali Yuga, or “Age of Darkness,” the last of four prescribed yugas from Vedic cosmology:
Satya Yuga (golden age, humanity existed as one)
Treta Yuga (the birth of war and disease)
Dvapara Yuga (divisions deepen, including the parsing of the Vedas into four books out of one)
Kali Yuga (the age of darkness and deception)
The text is 5,000 years old, but look at what the Srimad Bhagavatam says about the qualities of the Kali Yuga. Chapter 2 of Canto 12 begins by explaining the corrupting influence of money on society:
“Then, O King, religion, truthfulness, cleanliness, tolerance, mercy, duration of life, physical strength and memory will all diminish day by day because of the powerful influence of the age of Kali.” — SB 12:2:1
Qualities that are inborn in humanity such as honesty, spiritual purity, tolerance of others, forgiveness, and even our health are in decline due to the corruption of this age. One look at our global leaders will show that these are not present qualities.
“In Kali-yuga, wealth alone will be considered the sign of a person’s good birth, proper behavior and fine qualities. And law and justice will be applied only on the basis of one’s power.” — SB 12:2:2
How often are commentators, especially in America, able to predict the outcome of a criminal proceeding simply by listing the race and class of the offending party?
“ Men and women will live together merely because of superficial attraction, and success in business will depend on deceit. Womanliness and manliness will be judged according to one’s expertise in sex, and a man will be known as a brahmana just by his wearing a thread.” — SB 12:2:3
Call me a moralist, but look at our divorce rate. What compels people to marry the wrong person and to marry young is our society’s own hypocritical morality surrounding sex. We don’t actually revere sex, witness the reaction to a flash of a nipple back in the early 00’s, so much as we fetishize titillation. Our culture uses titillation to sell everything. Witness this soup ad from England, where even bad sex is used as a marketing tool:
Even among sex-positive writers, the message is that self-realization can be achieved through the mastery of sexual prowess. The orgasm is a powerful experience, and having the skill to bring that out in your partner (or even in your own self) is certainly a boon to the self-esteem, but don’t expect to find the secrets of the universe after staining your sheets.
The condemnation of deceitful practices speaks to the entire market that now exists towards telling people that they aren’t good enough by simply being themselves. Consider the language used in modern career coaching: you are selling yourself, but a curated version; you must “re-brand” to stay current. Too much of our financial dealings are wrapped up in deception. The compounding of interest, which we in the West accept as a normative practice, is forbidden as a sin known as usury by early Christians (St. Thomas Aquinas believed it was theft) as well as under Islamic law. It was for that reason that Jesus angrily ejected the money-changers from the temple. Knowing that fact, perhaps the Western war on Islam is given a greater context.
The final sentence in that verse speaks to the hypocrisy of keeping appearances. Some of America’s greatest deceivers shield themselves behind the cross, a fitting parallel to the brahmana thread worn by many initiated Vedantists.
“A person’s spiritual position will be ascertained merely according to external symbols, and on that same basis people will change from one spiritual order to the next. A person’s propriety will be seriously questioned if he does not earn a good living. And one who is very clever at juggling words will be considered a learned scholar.” — SB 12:2:4
Our culture is vapid and obsessed with appearance. Swami Prabhupada decried identity politics as “skin disease” because it reinforces attachment to the physical self. He was not blind to the system of oppression, oppressor, and oppressed, but he offered the remedy of harmony through spiritual unity. If you recognize me as coming from the same divine source that made you, even though we share outward differences, love and affinity forms.
Moral hypocrisy is the greatest source of apostasy. In college, I met many lapsed Christians and Jews who identified as being “spiritual, but not religious,” some even espousing atheism and anti-religious sentiments, the result of experiencing patriarchal abuse through their religious upbringing.
Though it is an atheist system, capitalism/materialism has become the spiritual order of the day. We judge based on wealth, and our societal treatment of the impoverished and the homeless serves as a dark example of this practice.
What makes one an expert? Too often we are wowed by the admittedly small number of voices in the mainstream (or even on the fringes), simply because they are present. I encourage people to read more, and to write with more than just their thumbs.
“ A person will be judged unholy if he does not have money, and hypocrisy will be accepted as virtue. Marriage will be arranged simply by verbal agreement, and a person will think he is fit to appear in public if he has merely taken a bath.” — SB 12:2:5
Donald Trump is loved by Christians. Binyamin Netanyahu is loved by Jews. Narendra Modi is loved by Hindus. Aung San Suu Kyi is loved by Buddhists. None of these unholy creatures embody the spirits of their respective faiths, yet their power entices and simultaneously intimidates their followers into forming personality cults around them.
The institution of marriage is too often driven by lust, selfishness, or simply for the sake of convenience, rather than true love. In the Bhagavad Gita, a point is made to illustrate that such unions promote disharmony across an entire society, so magnanimous is this impact. Our society suffers when children are not raised in an environment surrounded with love.
The Sikhs espouse (pun not intended!) a similar view on purity as is here, that ritual cleansing purifies the body, but not the soul.
“ A sacred place will be taken to consist of no more than a reservoir of water located at a distance, and beauty will be thought to depend on one’s hairstyle. Filling the belly will become the goal of life, and one who is audacious will be accepted as truthful. He who can maintain a family will be regarded as an expert man, and the principles of religion will be observed only for the sake of reputation.” — SB 12:2:6
The growth of society and its continued encroachment in local ecosystems has obliterated the sanctity of nature in many parts of the world. The United States Department of the Interior has shrunk the size of National Monuments that are sacred to the indigenous people of Utah and Oregon, in the name of pursuing a profit. The myth of scarcity has promoted gluttony to become a value in modern America to the point that being a “foodie” is now a career. Leaders like Trump, Modi, and Duterte have come to power for “telling it like it is,” a code phrase to defend audacious statements in support of racism, xenophobia, and political violence.
Maintaining a family under such a system as capitalism requires money, and it is the wealthy who are looked to as shining examples — before the Trumps, we had the Kennedys — of what the American family should be. As for religion being observed “only for the sake of reputation,” think of the many avowed Christian leaders in the United States who act against the Golden Rule, never mind how few of them have actually read the Bible.
“ As the earth thus becomes crowded with a corrupt population, whoever among any of the social classes shows himself to be the strongest will gain political power.” — SB 12:2:7
Here, the focus shifts from leaders and those who gain power to those who live under it. The toxic mentality of corrupt leaders becomes the mentality of the people, who will largely embrace hypocrisy.
“ Losing their wives and properties to such avaricious and merciless rulers, who will behave no better than ordinary thieves, the citizens will flee to the mountains and forests.” — SB 12:2:8
Those who remain steadfast will often find themselves alienated from society. We have many historic examples of religious communities of all ilks facing oppression during the reign of authoritarian regimes.
“ Harassed by famine and excessive taxes, people will resort to eating leaves, roots, flesh, wild honey, fruits, flowers and seeds. Struck by drought, they will become completely ruined.” — SB 12:2:9
Famine and drought will afflict the land, starving the people who are already suffering under state oppression. (Yes, they had taxes five thousand years ago.)
“ The citizens will suffer greatly from cold, wind, heat, rain and snow. They will be further tormented by quarrels, hunger, thirst, disease and severe anxiety.” — SB 12:2:10
The impact of mankind’s greed has manifested itself as global warming, better defined by the meteorological term “climate destabilization.” The myth of scarcity, due to man-made climate change, is becoming a reality. Major weather events are displacing cities, states, even entire regions, whether it is an inundation of rain, snow, or lava. We now have climate refugees, and that number will only increase. The impact on resource management is proving to be hard and fast. We could very well be facing wars in our lifetime over vital resources such as water. South Africa, India, Iraq, Spain, and Morocco are approaching cataclysmic “Day Zero” events, where their reservoirs will effectively no longer have sufficient drinking water.
“ The maximum duration of life for human beings in Kali Yuga will become fifty years.” — SB 12:2:11
Lifespans shorten as the effects of a toxic environment, anxiety, and scarcity impacts human well-being.
“ By the time the Kali Yuga ends, the bodies of all creatures will be greatly reduced in size, and the religious principles of followers of varnasrama will be ruined.” — SB 12:2:12
Human health and social structures will be depleted. (Please consult my past essay on Vedic Anarchism for my description of varnasrama.)
“The path of the Vedas will be completely forgotten in human society, and so-called religion will be mostly atheistic.” — SB 12:2:13
Modern religion as we know it has become an amoral social club, where external matters such as finances take precedent over exploring our relationship with God. Prabhupada’s purport of this verse includes his belief that Western atheists misinterpret Buddhism to suit their own ends and refers to a Supreme Court ruling in the United States that determined a religious concept does not need to hold a belief in God or a divine Creator to be recognized as a religion.
“The kings will mostly be thieves, the occupations of men will be stealing, lying and needless violence, and all the social classes will be reduced to the lowest level of sudras.” — SB 12:2:14
In this time of what Frank Zappa called “situational ethics,” our most valued occupations are those dealing in finance, litigation, and empire building.
“Cows will be like goats, spiritual hermitages will be no different from mundane houses, and family ties will extend no further than the immediate bonds of marriage. Most plants and herbs will be tiny, and all trees will appear like dwarf trees. Clouds will be full of lightning, homes will be devoid of piety, and all human beings will have become like asses.” — SB 12:2:15
“At that time, the Supreme Personality of Godhead will appear on the earth. Acting with the power of pure spiritual goodness, He will rescue eternal religion.” — SB 12:2:16
At last, some reprieve. In the Bhagavad Gita, when Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna to be God in the flesh, he tells him, “Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, and a predominant rise of irreligion — at that time I descend Myself.” (BG 4:7) Such a form is known as an avatar. In Vaisnavite theology, the Lord has appeared as an avatar nine times, including as Lord Rama, Sri Krishna, and Gautama Buddha; the tenth and final incarnation of Vishnu (the Supreme Lord in Vaisnavism) is to be a savior of all known as Kalki.
The depiction of Kalki as a rescuer is akin to the Messianic portrayal of Jesus Christ. Though he did not form an army, lead a nation, or take a single prisoner, consider the role of Jesus as a wise guru in the context of verse eight:
“In order to deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I advent Myself millennium after millennium.” (BG 4:8)
Punishment and annihilation as we know it is defined as rebirth through the cycle of birth and death, condemned to continue on this plane as humanity goes further into Kali Yuga. Eventually, conditions will become so Hellish that Lord Shiva himself will descend as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer, to destroy all that remains…all before the cycle starts over again.
Kali Yuga is meant to drag on for thousands of years, but the following chapter from Srimad Bhagavatam promises both a glimmer of hope and a way out:
“ My dear King, although Kali Yuga is an ocean of faults, there is still one good quality about this age: Simply by chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, one can become free from material bondage and be promoted to the transcendental kingdom.” — SB 12:3:51
Though life gets harder in each progressive Yuga, God-realization becomes easier! In the Satya Yuga, meditation on Vishnu (raja yoga) was required; in Treta Yuga, the requirement was performing sacrifices; in Dvapara Yuga, service to the Lord was required. In Kali Yuga, the only requirement to attain salvation is to remember and chant the name of the Lord. Remember, Krishna is one of God’s many names: Hallelujah, Allahu Akbar, Hare Krishna, Waheguru / Ik Onkar / Satnaam, Namasivaya, are but a few standalone chants used by major belief systems.
Chant and be happy,