A singular mantra was coming from every direction: “Craps: You Lose!”
I was visiting an old high school friend, Ritchie, in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he’s lived for the last ten years, and he insisted on taking me to a gambling casino. “But I don’t gamble.” I told him. “Don’t worry,” he said, obviously prepared for my resistence. After all, I’ve been a devotee of Krishna for thirty years, and my old buddy knows well that, as a rule, we scrupulously avoid gambling of all sorts. “I’ll do all the gambling,” he said. “I just want you to see how I spend a bit of my leisure time.”
The casino was frightening. Though beautifully decorated, with tons of money obviously lavished upon every detail of the ambiance and setting, there was something perverse about the atmosphere, which pandered to the fantasies and base desires of the poor souls who frequented the place. Ritchie was a good guy, but he buys into the wicked dreams of middle-class America — “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” He always bought into it, and, although he’s now older, things haven’t changed all that much.
As I watched the dice roll from table to table, I thought of the age of Kali, the current age of quarrel and iniquity — this is the perfect setting for this tasteless display of gambling, booze and sex run amok. According to the philosophy of Krishna consciousness, each world cycle is subdivided into four yugas or world ages. These are comparable to the ages of the Greco-Roman tradition, which, like the ages described in ancient India’s Vedic texts, decline in moral excellence as the round moves forward.
People become more and more unfortunate, with decrease in strength, memory, discretion, and a commensurate shortening of their lifespans as well. The classical ages of the West took their names from precious metals: Gold, Silver, Brass, and Iron. But the Vedic ages, ironically enough (given my visit to Las Vegas), originated from the four throws of an ancient Indian dice game. Those throws were specifically called Krta, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali, signifying four, three, two, and one, respectively.
The Descent of Kali
Krta-yuga, also known as Satya-yuga, is the age of innate goodness, when Truth prevails. Satya, in fact, means “truth,” and Krta means “perfect,” or, more accurately, “well-done,” since the word is the past participle of the verb-root kri — “to do.” In Treta-yuga, only three-fourths of the Truth remains — from treta, meaning “three.” After this, things start going downhill quickly. Dvapara-yuga is the age of two parts — one-half of the totality of Truth — from the root dvapara, meaning “twofold.”
When Dvapara-yuga ends, material degradation comes to the fore, and it brings about a decline of spiritual interest and acumen, in addition to the other deficiencies just mentioned. This is known as Kali-yuga, or the Dark-Age, when only one part of Truth prevails — ignorance, selfishness, anger and indifference are the order of the day. And as I looked around me in that gambling casino, I had no doubt that we were in the midst of Kali — full force!
It takes a long time for Kali to rear her ugly head. If we compute the time period of the yugas in terms of the years of the gods, we have Krta-yuga for a length of 4,000 years with an intercessory period (known as a Sandhya) of 800. So this is a total of 4,800 years. Next is Treta Yuga, which lasts 3,000 godly years with a Sandhya of 600, giving us a total of 3,600. Then we have Dvapara-yuga, which is only 2000 years in length, with a Sandhya of 400 — that’s 2,400 years. And Kali-yuga lasts for 1000 years, with an intercession of 200. The total for this final yuga, then, is 1,200 divine years. Thus, the grand total is 12,000.
But a year of the gods is equal to 360 years of men, and so we continue to calculate:
4,800 x 360 = 1,728,000
3,600 x 360 = 1,296,000
2,400 x 360 = 864,000
1,200 x 360 = 432,000
The total? 4,320,000 years, which forms what is called a Maha-yuga. Now, remember, this is all cyclical: Two thousand Maha-yugas or 8,640,000,000 years make a Kalpa or night and a day of Brahma, the first created being, whose life is about half over — he’s lived about fifty divine years. Bottom line: It’s been a long time since Brahma’s birth, and Las Vegas shows me just how far we’ve come.
In ancient India, Krta is the dice-throw that wins the jackpot — it’s a complete win, with no exceptions. In Vedic numerology, the idea of totality is associated with the number four. If something is complete and self-contained it must consist of four quarters — it is thereby established firmly on its “four legs,” alluding to a story found in the Srimad Bhagavatam (Canto 1, Chapters 16 and 17).
Until the age of Kali, says the Bhagavatam, Dharma, or religious Truth, personified by a bull, happily walked along on its four legs — austerity, cleanliness, mercy, and truthfulness — safely guarding the moral order of the universe. But now, in Kali-yuga, only one leg remains, and that is a diminished form of universal Truthfulness. This is the age in which we live. In the dice game, Kali is the losing throw. “Craps: You lose!”
During the Kali-yuga, man and his world are at their very worst. The Vishnu Purana (1.33.7) says: “When society reaches a stage, where property confers rank, wealth becomes the only source of virtue, passion the sole bond of union between husband and wife, falsehood the source of success in life, sex the only means of enjoyment, and when outer trappings are confused with inner religion — then, know for certain, we are in the Kali-yuga.” As I look around me in the gambling casino, I have little doubt about the age we are in.
My mind rivets to the first written records of dice as a game of chance. This is found in the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. There, the evil Duryodhana challenged the noble Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandava princes, to a game of dice. By cheating, Duryodhana defeated Yudhisthira each time — the prince threw “Kali” again and again, and as a result, he lost his wealth and his kingdom. This series of events, of course, led to the war mentioned in the pages of the Bhagavad-gita. Soon after the end of this war, we are told, Kali began with full steam.
A Lucky Throw
Interestingly, Vedic texts at times refer to Kali-yuga as Pusya-yuga and Tisya-yuga, especially in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The terms pusya and tisya refer to something “fortunate” or “auspicious.” It is thus curious that these words would be identified with Kali, for those notions run counter to the commonly conceived idea that Kali-yuga is a time of general decay and inauspiciousness.
The answer to this mystery lies in the puranas, which is another section of the Vedic literature. Here we find esoteric verses that show a special, positive side of Kali-yuga. For example, a much-cited verse in the Srimad Bhagavatam (12.3.52) says, “What one obtained in Krta-yuga by deep meditation, in the Treta by performing complicated sacrifices, and in Dvapara by complex forms of worship, one obtains in Kali merely by singing the praises of Lord Kesava [Krsna]” The same truth is expressed in the Visnu Purana (6.2.17), the Padma Purana (72.25), the Brhan-naradiya Purana (38.97), and elsewhere.
In other words, even though Kali is an age beleaguered by faults, there is a compensation factor: The means of self-realization is easier than that of other ages. This point was emphasized by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His followers. Sri Chaitanya is God Himself in the guise of His own devotee. He appeared in India only 500 years ago, in the midst of Kali’s reign. With His auspicious appearance ushers in the Prema-yuga, the age of love, which is said to last for 10,000 years. While the world deteriorates all around the devotees, those who take part in Mahaprabhu’s mission will live happily in Krishna consciousness, trying to help others.
Mahaprabhu is known as the Yuga Avatara — God descends in each age with a specific process of God realization, and Mahaprabhu came equipped with the Holy Name: The Bhagavatam (11.5.32) tells us that, “In the age of Kali, those who are truly intelligent perform congregational chanting in the mood of Sri Caitanya.” As I left the gambling casino, I was certain that this verse was not about the people I saw around me.
But maybe it was. Sri Caitanya is also known as Patita-pavana, or “the deliverer of the most fallen.” And so, as we left the casino, I started to tell Ritchie my thoughts about Kali-yuga and the original dice tale as told in the Mahabharata. He expressed interest and agreed to finally read The Golden Avatara by his Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada — a book about Sri Caitanya I had given him some twenty-five years ago. Life was rough, Ritchie admitted. And he realized that there must be more than gambling and showgirls. Here, I thought, was a good beginning, and as I looked out at the seductive lights of Las Vegas night life, I knew that this conversation could have only taken place in Kali-yuga.
Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, a biannual publication exploring Eastern thought. He is also associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine and the author of over twenty books on Indian philosophy. His recent titles includeEssential Hinduism (Praeger, 2006), Krishna’s Song: A New Look at the Bhagavad Gita (Greenwood, 2007), The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008), Krishna’s Other Song: A New Look at the Uddhava Gita (Praeger Publishing, 2010), and The Jedi in the Lotus: Star Wars and Hindu Traditions (Arktos, 2010). Find out more at www.sjrosen.com.