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PRALAYA , or doomsday in the Hindu eschatological scheme, comes at the end of the fourth and worst of the four ages, or yuga s, at the end of each kalpa, or day of Brahmā. The Purāas, which describe this process in great detail, differ as to the precise length of time that this process requires, but the scale is always astronomical, involving hundreds of thousands of years. At the end of the kalpa, the heat of the sun becomes so intense that it dries up the whole earth and sets the three worlds (heaven, earth, and the underworld) on fire; when they have been entirely consumed, enormous clouds appear and rain falls for hundreds of years, deluging the whole world until the waters inundate heaven and all is reduced to the primeval ocean of chaos. In anthropomorphic terms, this is the moment when Brahmā, whose waking moments or whose dream has been the source of the "emission" of the universe from his mind, falls into a deep, dreamless sleep inside the cosmic waters. And at the end of that sleep, at the end of the period of quiescence, the universe, or the consciousness of the god, is reborn once more out of the waters of chaos.

This circular pattern contains within it an infinite number of linear segments. For India, like Greece, developed a theory of four ages of declining goodness. Whereas the Greeks named these ages after metals, the Indians called them after throws of the dice, the first and best being the ktayuga, which is followed by the tretā, the dvāpara, and finally the present age, or the kaliyuga. The importance of the metaphor of dice is also manifest in the fact that the royal ceremony of consecration included a ritual dice game; in the second book of the Mahābhārata, King Yudhihira loses his entire kingdom in a game of dice against an opponent whom he knows to be a cheat, thus inaugurating a period of exile that is also a part of the ritual of consecration. Moreover, as Madeleine Biardeau has convincingly argued, the catastrophic battle that ends the Mahābhārata, an Armageddon in which all the heroes as well as all the villains are killed, is a reenactment on the human level of the cosmic doomsday that is constantly alluded to in the epic. This human doomsday, like the big dice game in the sky, begins with Yudhihira's unlucky loss and ends, inevitably, with the losing throw for humankind.

Yet the "end" that comes after the kaliyuga is not the end at all, but a new beginning; a new ktayuga will follow after the fallow interval. Moreover, there is a "seed" of humanity that survives doomsday to form the stock of the new race of humans. Sometimes this seminal group is said to be the Seven Sages, whom Viu in the form of a fish saves from the cosmic flood; sometimes it is Manu, the ancestor of all humankind, and his family; sometimes it is an unspecified group of "good men" who resist the corruption that overtakes everyone else at the end of the kaliyuga, a group that retires to the forest to live in innocence while the cities of the plain drown in their own depravity. This "seed" functions on the macrocosmic level as a metaphor for the transmigrating soul on the microcosmic level, the ātman that leaps across the barrier between individual human death and rebirth, just as the good "seed" leaps across the barrier between one pralaya and the next cosmic emission, or prasarga. In the Vedantic mythology of the late Purāas, and in Indian literature in general, recurrent images of doomsday serve to emphasize the insubstantiality of the world; the things that people think of as permanent are constantly destroyed and re-created.


A good introduction in English is provided by Hermann Jacobi's article on the "Ages of the World," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1908). Details of the Sanskrit texts are cited in Willibald Kirfel's Das Purāa Pañcalakaa (Bonn, 1927), though without any useful interpretation. The classic discussion remains Mircea Eliade's "Time and Eternity in Indian Thought," in Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, vol. 3, Man and Time, edited by Joseph Campbell (New York, 1957), pp. 173200. A thoughtful and complex interpretation of the pralaya may be found in Madeleine Biardeau's Études de mythologie hindoue published in the Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême Orient (Paris, 1968, 1969, 1971, and 1976).

Wendy Doniger (1987)

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