The four yugas refer to cosmic ages that are used in the Vedic system for measuring universal time. Unlike the Western concept of linear time, Vedic time is cyclical. Like the four seasons of the year, the four ages of a chaturyuga, or Yuga cycle, rotate without end.
In this article we give an overview of each of the four yugas, Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, and Kali Yuga, and we discuss concepts of Vedic time, including definitions of the most commonly used time units. We also reveal amazing coincidences between Vedic history and the modern fields of cosmology and archeology. And of course you will also learn about our present age in Vedic time: Kali yuga.
Just as there are four seasons to the calendar year, there are four yugas or universal seasons that make up an epoch of the cosmos. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
In Satya Yuga, human beings were adept in meditation and possessed unbelievable strength and longevity. The Vedic texts state that humans during Satya Yuga, or the Golden Age, lived for up to 100,000 years. There was no disparity among cultures. Everyone enjoyed worldly comforts and lived in perfect harmony with the natural environment. There was no war, famine, or conflict among the human race. It was a time of complete peace on Earth.
However, as time progressed, people became less inclined toward spiritual practices and wished to augment their material comforts beyond their needs. A spirit of competition arose among men and as a result the system of varnasrama, or class-based society, was introduced. This ushered in the Dvapara Yuga, or Silver Age.
In Treta Yuga, the Silver Age, human beings engage in nonviolent religious sacrifice as a means of propitiating the gods and ultimately pleasing the Supreme Person, Vishnu. As Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna in Bhagavad-gita:
saha-yajñāḥ prajāḥ sṛṣṭvā purovāca prajāpatiḥ
anena prasaviṣyadhvam eṣa vo ’stv iṣṭa-kāma-dhuk
“In the beginning of creation, the Lord of all creatures sent forth generations of men and demigods, along with sacrifices for Viṣṇu, and blessed them by saying, ‘Be thou happy by this yajña [sacrifice] because its performance will bestow upon you everything desirable for living happily and achieving liberation.’”
devān bhāvayatānena te devā bhāvayantu vaḥ
parasparaṁ bhāvayantaḥ śreyaḥ param avāpsyatha
“The demigods, being pleased by sacrifices, will also please you, and thus, by cooperation between men and demigods, prosperity will reign for all.” (Bhagavad-gita, 3.10-11)
In order to facilitate collective sacrifice, human society was divided into four classes of men: brahmanas (intellectuals), kshatriyas (administrators), vaishyas (merchants), and sudras (workers). The brahmanas studied the Vedas and guided society with spiritual wisdom, the kshatriyas served as rulers, politicians, and army generals, the vaishyas worked in commerce and industry, and the sudras served the other three classes. However, there was not a spirit of envy or condescension among the four classes. Rather, each member of society sacrificed for the good of the whole and for the satisfaction of Sri Vishnu.
In Treta yuga, human beings were extremely dutiful, moral, and compassionate toward their fellow living beings. They lived life spans up to 10,000 years. Although there was some division among society, it was nevertheless a time of overarching peace and prosperity.
By the end of Treta Yuga, human beings began to stray from the path of dharma, or the religious way of life. Members of society exploited their positions to increase their own stature and standard of happiness at the expense of those around them. This was occurring at all levels of society, from brahmanas to sudras. Wars began to break out as ruling kings vied for power, wealth, and influence. No longer able to effectively perform collective sacrifice, human beings instead took up the worship of Vishnu in His deity form. Thousands of temples were constructed throughout the world for the worship of the Supreme Person, Vishnu, as well as His demigod expansions, such as Indra, Agni, Shiva, etc.
Dvapara Yuga, or the Bronze Age, saw the first instances of selfishness and irreligion overcoming mankind’s natural godly nature. The scales began to tip in favor of godlessness, and people became fearful and mistrusting of their leaders and fellow citizens. However, there were still many holy kings on earth who upheld justice and defended virtue. Human beings in Dvapara Yuga live up to 1,000 years.
Toward the end of the most recent Dvapara Yuga, Mother Earth became overburdened by corrupt leaders who had all but completely abandoned the path of religiosity in favor of wanton selfishness and blind violence. Mother Earth assumed the form of a helpless cow and approached Brahma, the universal creator, pleading to him to intervene on her behalf and for the welfare of the human race. Brahma then made an appeal to Vishnu, who informed him that the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, would appear on Earth to destroy the evil kings and restore virtue to the world. It was at this time that Krishna made His descent and spoke the famous Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna.
While Sri Krishna remained on the planet, Kali Yuga could not begin. The reason is that the presence of the Supreme Person keeps ignorance and irreligion at bay. As the Vaisnava poet Krishnadasa has written:
kṛṣṇa — sūrya-sama; māyā haya andhakāra
yāhāṅ kṛṣṇa, tāhāṅ nāhi māyāra adhikāra
“Krishna is compared to sunshine, and māyā [illusion] is compared to darkness. Wherever there is sunshine, there cannot be darkness. As soon as one takes to Krishna consciousness, the darkness of illusion will immediately vanish.” (Caitanya-caritamrta, 2.22.31)
However, shortly after the departure of Sri Krishna to His own realm in the spiritual sky, Kali Yuga broke out in full force. The social order was turned on its head. Religious and political leaders, instead of educating and protecting the populace, abandoned virtue and became the chief criminals in society.
In Kali Yuga, or the Iron Age, spirituality and morality are diminished to shadows of their former selves. Deception and hypocrisy in the name of religion is the status quo. The only process of dharma that is still practiced and effective is nama-sankirtana, or chanting the names of God, especially the maha-mantra: Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare. Kali Yuga is the polar opposite of Satya Yuga — the world is virtually devoid of peace. All living beings suffer material hardships as they struggle simply to survive, being deeply afflicted by fear.
In Kali Yuga, people live up to only 100 years. The Bhagavata Purana describes human beings of Kali Yuga as follows:
“In this iron Age of Kali men almost always have but short lives. They are quarrelsome, lazy, misguided, unlucky and, above all, always disturbed.” (Srimad Bhagavatam, 1.1.10)
In contrast to the Western concept of linear time, the Vedas describe our universe as being created, destroyed, and recreated again in an unending cycle. A key unit in universal time is the yuga, which is the basic time unit of our cosmos according to Vedic cosmology. However, there are many other important units as well.
Major Vedic Time Units
A yuga, also known as an age, is an era in universal history. The first yuga is known as satya yuga, or the Golden Age. Next is Treta yuga, the Silver Age, Dvapara yuga, the Bronze Age, and finally Kali yuga, the Iron Age. Satya yuga is the longest, measuring 3,456,000 of our solar years, and Kali yuga is the shortest, measuring just 864,000 years.