The Cycle of History

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The Vedic System Neglects History

The Vedic tradition has always had a very weak interest in chronological history. Vedic texts only record the important events—e.g., those about the incarnations of God on earth, or those of great devotees of God, who then spread devotion to God all over the earth. Everything else in history is presented around these two basic themes. For instance, even when the stories of demons such as Rāvana, Hiranyāksha, Hiraṇyakaśipū, Duryodhana, etc. are presented, they are in the context of the appearance of the incarnations of the Lord such as Ramachandra, Vārāha, Nrśingha, Kṛṣṇa, etc.

Everything else is ignored in the Vedic texts, almost as if it never happened because the Vedic system is not interested in the mundane events of the world. They are only interested in the great events of history; greatness being defined specifically as the activities of the Lord and His great devotees.

This can seem perplexing to most people in the modern time where there is a paucity of great personalities. At present, history is used to give people a social, cultural, national, and political identity. Since everyone wants to feel good about their society, nation, culture, and politics, therefore, history is written by the winners, and altered to suit the narratives of the winners of the time. Since the winners keep changing from time to time, therefore, history is constantly revised to suit the current narrative. In that process, what was previously regarded as great, is forgotten, and new events are highlighted.

The Rise of History in the West

Herodotus, who wrote the first detailed accounts of the Greco-Persian wars during Greek times, was, therefore, given the title of “The Father of History” by the Roman orator Cicero and the title of “The Father of Lies” by his contemporary military commander Thucydides, because he fabricated many feel-good folk tales and passed them on as historical facts. Historical writing has been distrusted from the start, and historians of every age question the claims made by previous historians, trying to validate their veracity against other contemporary accounts. This is by no means foolproof; if a group of historians was collectively manipulating the facts, then there would be no way to validate the truth, despite numerous contemporary accounts.

To elevate history to a “science”, and find some theoretical tools to validate historical accounts, many historians and philosophers have felt the need to formulate a theory of history. But we must remember that history exists even for these philosophers to give people a feel-good narrative about their past.

The Idea of Progressive History

Time in this feel-good history is envisioned as a linear progression—from a good past to a better present to an even better future. This idea about history started in Greek and Roman times, where historians wanted to tell a favorable story about their civilizational conquests and cultural identity. However, because empires rise and fall, therefore, the linear model of history became questionable every time a civilization, culture, or nation failed. If things were supposed to get better, then why did they get worse?

To sort this problem within the linear progression, Hegel created a “dialectical” system of history in which every thesis creates its antithesis, the two clash and then unite, to produce a synthesis. Due to the clash, we could say that many things eventually collapse. However, not to worry, because that clash eventually leads to synthesis, and therefore history still progresses linearly.

Hegel’s system of history is clever because even if civilizations fail, you can say: This failure will lead to a better future. The question is: Better for whom? And the answer is: Whoever survives. But who will survive? And the answer is those who synthesize the thesis with the antithesis. This utopia about the future rests on our ability to synthesize, but it is not guaranteed that we will synthesize. Hegel supposes that such a synthesis will happen, but historical facts don’t bear this out. The same ideas reappear again and again. The same mistakes are committed repeatedly. Hence, the saying: “History repeats itself”.

Indeed, many more people believe that “History repeats itself” than those who have heard of Hegel or believe in his ideas. But this common acceptance about the repetition of history goes counter to the idea of linear progression; rather, it points to the possibility that time is cyclical. This cyclicality doesn’t mean that we “go back” to the past; it just means that the same type of events is repeated.

Philosophical Conundrums of History

This recognition however sends us back to the original philosophical questions about the writing of history: Should we even detail the mundane stuff that repeats again and again? Or, should we write something down only if it is new and interesting? The things that happen infrequently, and stand out as unique events over long periods, are now the only candidates for historical recording. Everything else is a repetition of the mundane stuff; writing it could be called “chewing the chewed”.

This conclusion, however, is unlikely to change the facts on the ground, because even as people say “history repeats itself” in their hopelessly resigned to fate mental state, to continue living their difficult lives, they need to believe that the future will be better than the past. Even if they say that “things get worse before they get better”, they do need to believe that things will get better eventually.

Cyclical Time in Vedic Philosophy

This belief is considered false in Vedic philosophy because time is indeed cyclical. When things seem to be getting better, people are still discouraged from identifying with their race, country, culture, society, etc. to instill in them the desire for liberation from this world. Conversely, the idea that things are constantly improving binds us to material existence. Hence, the idea that time is cyclical is tied to the culture of seeking liberation, and the idea that time is linearly progressive is tied to the material bondage of seeking perfection in this world.

Those who are tied to the idea of materialistic progress tend to argue against the cyclical notion of time because it appears to leave no room for human free will. If the world is destined to iterate over the same things again and again, then what is the role of human free will? Can we not change the future by our choices? The answer to that problem in Vedic philosophy is that we cannot change the cyclical iteration of the world, but we can escape it. Our free will arises in the cyclical world in the choice to continue living in the cycle or escaping it. There is no other meaning to free will other than liberation because the world is otherwise deterministically governed by a process of cyclical change.

History Can Be Transcendental

The study of history now takes on a new meaning, if that study is used to illustrate the dynamic of cyclical change. The theory of history makes transcendental sense if it demonstrates that the world is cyclical. This new justification for studying history is fundamentally not contrary to the established Vedic stance of only discussing important events, because both are motivated by the same goal. When history is limited to important events related to the Lord and His devotees, then transcendence is emphasized. Similarly, when history is presented as a theory of the description of mundane events, transcendence can still be established if that study concludes that “history repeats itself”.

Therefore, there is no fundamental incongruity between the ahistorical nature of the Vedic tradition (in the specific sense that chronologically accurate accounts are disregarded), and the historical study of events in the same tradition (in the specific sense that this sequence can demonstrate cyclical time). Indeed, when most people are ensnared by the false idea that things are constantly improving in this world, it is important to detach them from it and help them see the futility of such beliefs.

A Brief Theory of History

With that background, this post describes a theory of history. In this theory, the world is understood using three concepts, called dharma, artha, and kāma, or “morality”, “prosperity”, and “enjoyment”, respectively. These three concepts are material reflections of the three aspects of the soul, called sat, chit, and ānanda, which we can also term right, truth, and good.

In the transcendental state, truth, right, and good exist simultaneously, but in the material state, one of these three is dominant while the other two remain subordinate. Similarly, in the transcendental state, the dualities of truth and false, right and wrong, good and bad, are reconciled (we will elaborate on this further during the latter part of this post). However, in the material state, these are separated, and they appear to be mutually opposed.

A cycle of change is produced as a consequence of—(a) the separation of truth, right, and good, and (b) the opposition between truth and false, right and wrong, good and bad. If truth, right, and good are reconciled, along with the reconciliation of truth and false, right and wrong, good and bad, then cyclical change ends, and linear progression ensues. Thereby, time in the transcendental world is linearly progressive; things are continuously getting better. There is continuously growing knowledge, freedom, and happiness. However, in the material world, due to the separation between the three aspects of the soul, and the contradictions to their opposites, a cycle of change is created. This cycle is not unique to history; everything—including the soul’s journey through this world—is cyclical in the same way. Namely, they are based on the dominant-subordinate states of the aspects of the soul and their mutually opposing divisions.

The theory of history, if it illustrates this cyclical change, can also establish the same two truths that are important for transcendence, namely, that this world is temporary, repetitive, and cyclical change, while the transcendental world is linear, progressive, continuously improving existence. The idea of linear time is not completely false, but it is true only in the case of the transcendental world. The material world, on the other hand, should never be described using the notion of linear time.

Cyclical Change Originates in Love

With that overview, we can look at the picture at the top of this post. It describes a cycle with two paths—an “upward” and a “downward” path—which leads to one another, causing a cycle.

The upward path begins when the nature of kāma or enjoyment is seen as love. For most people, the term “kāma” represents sex due to its association with Kāma-Sūtra, but kāma doesn’t mean sex; it means to desire, love, like, and enjoy. Kāma, however, has its opposite in lust. These opposites are mutually defined, therefore, where love exists, lust also exists in a hidden form but either love or lust can be dominant at a given time. Thus, love can transform into lust, and vice versa, because love is within lust and lust is within love although only one of these is manifest at a given time while the other remains hidden or subordinated within the dominant manifestation. The upward moving form of kāma is predominantly love, whereas the downward moving form of kāma is predominantly lust or gross material sensuality.

Love and lust are opposites because lust is about power and control over someone else while love is about nurturing and caring for the other person. When love is dominant, then material things are acquired to make other people happy. But when lust is dominant, then material things are acquired to boost one’s ego. Instead of trying to make the other person happy, lust makes a person self-centered. When love is present, then a person is naturally happy and doesn’t need sensual aggrandizement. Lust becomes prominent when love disappears, and the resulting unhappiness due to the absence of love increases sensuality. The downward path of the historical cycle also begins when kāma is transformed from love into sensual lust.

Modern historians like to study the twists and turns in history based on external factors, such as climate change, natural disasters, victory or defeat in wars, economic growth or decline, etc. They see the world impersonally and materially, rather than as rooted in the needs of the soul. Their inability to understand the deepest reality, and the extroverted nature of modern culture, have drawn attention away from the true cause of the rise and fall of societies and civilizations. This materialistic, impersonal, outward-looking, and trying to gather more wealth and power trend sees sensual enjoyment as a sign of social progress when it is the beginning of a decline. We can understand that it is the beginning of a decline if we look at the world from a spiritual perspective because the deepest emotional need for the soul is love. When lust becomes dominant, then the deepest spiritual need for love remains unfulfilled. An unfulfilled person cannot produce anything good. So, for some time, lust drives prosperity in the world, but this prosperity gets more superficial and continuously degrades in true value.

Progression of Love into Morality

When love increases on the upward path, then morality automatically grows. Morality is predicated on some values such as truth, sacrifice, kindness, and cleanliness. When a person is innately happy due to love, then they can think about others. Under that concern for others, they are truthful, kind, sacrificing, and clean. If a person is unhappy due to the absence of love, then he is also gripped by fear. This fear then makes a person unkind, selfish, deceitful, and unclean. Fear sometimes paralyzes a person, and sometimes it makes them act frenetically. The frenetic activity makes a person disorganized and unclean. Gripped by fear, the person always thinks about his survival and loses the capacity for kindness and sacrifice. And to protect himself from imagined danger and destruction, the person becomes addicted to lies that facilitate temporary survival. Thus, when love dies, then fear becomes prominent; under that fear, all moral principles progressively decline.

If instead, love is prominent, then produces it moral action. A person becomes more dutiful due to the innate happiness of love, and this dutifulness extends from one’s family to society, nation, and eventually the entire world. Of course, even as this dutifulness spreads, it becomes weaker, so the duty toward the society is weaker than the duty for the family, the duty for the nation is weaker than the duty for the society, and the duty for the world is weaker than the duty for the nation. Nevertheless, when love exists, then duty exists in some form. If love becomes stronger, the duty also becomes stronger. If many people are dutiful in a society, then the society becomes dutiful toward the nation. And if many nations are dutiful, then the whole world becomes dutiful. In this way, the core feeling of love leads to the dutiful nature of the people, society, nation, and the world. That dutiful nature appears as the truthfulness, kindness, sacrifice, and cleanliness of people.

Progression of Morality into Prosperity

This dutiful nature, which is called dharma, now leads to prosperity, which is called artha. The basic principle of economic elevation based on dharma is personal sacrifice and kindness to others. In economic terms, we can call it charity. If a millionaire gives a hundred dollars to a poor man, then for the poor man the value of those dollars is higher than for the millionaire, because, with that money, the poor man can eat, and then work. There is a limit to how much a millionaire can eat and work. A millionaire might have a thousand times more wealth than a poor person, but he cannot eat and work a thousand times more than a poor person. Hence, if the millionaire keeps the money to himself, then the value in the money remains locked. We can say that money has a low value when accumulated by the millionaire. The value in the millionaire’s wealth is unlocked when the wealth is given away to others who can use it well.

When the money is given to the poor man, it increases in value because human ingenuity is added in performing the work produced based on the energy of the food received from the donation. Of course, there must be the capacity in humans to add ingenuity at each step. If that capacity is missing, then charity doesn’t add value; charity gives a poor man food, after which that man goes back to sleep. Therefore, charity alone is not the cause of economic growth, although it can stimulate growth in an ingenious population.

Some people might argue: The value is unlocked even if we loan money, charge interest on it, lend it against collaterals, or pay a salary to people, etc. There are two problems in this argument. First, when you are working for someone else, you are seldom committed to the work as much as you would be if you were working for yourself. Second, when you realize that most of the output of your creativity is given back as interest on loans, shares, taxes, and profits, then you are inclined to steal and cheat. When a combination of both is applied, then most people become lazy (because they are working for others) or cheats (because their profits are being taken by others). An economic system that normalizes laziness and cheating can never be as effective as that which encourages hard work and honesty.

Therefore, charity produces greater economic prosperity than lending and borrowing, capital and trading markets, and large-scale employment, because it increases hard work and honesty. A society comprised of mostly small-scale entrepreneurs, farmers, and small businesses, is far more prosperous than one based on banks, corporates, and large-scale industries. We don’t need economics to know this; we need to know human psychology to realize it. The former type of prosperity is also distributed while the latter type of prosperity is concentrated. When wealth is distributed, then money circulates faster and creates faster economic growth than when wealth is concentrated. Economic principles can be applied to money circulation but that requires wealth distribution. When wealth is distributed by charity, wealth is actually decentralized. But when the wealth is distributed by lending, then wealth is eventually concentrated. Over time, when wealth is concentrated, the entire economic system collapses due to the drastic fall in demand, rendering supply useless.

If there is love in society, and most people are dutiful, then even those who are poor (although ingenious) will grow due to charity. In short, people will share the limited resources they have, each person will add value to those resources using their creativity and ingenuity, they will not try to steal from each other, and whatever they get in return, will be spread again to others. This creates a reinforcing cycle of growth. Conversely, if people are sensual and selfish, then they become immoral and steal from others, and never give anything away to those who don’t have it. By concentrating the wealth, most people’s ingenuity is wasted due to a lack of capital or resources, and that gradually leads to the destruction of ingenuity. In the absence of capital and an ingenious population, economic decline becomes inevitable.

Reversal in Progression

Thus, love leads to morality and morality leads to economic prosperity. Conversely, lust leads to immorality and immorality leads to economic decline. This process is easy enough to understand.

The harder part is understanding that when prosperity increases, then love begins to die, and love increases again when prosperity declines. In simple words, when people get very rich, they stop loving each other. For example, a rich mother will hire a nanny to take care of her kids, and spend time on other things, because she thinks that taking care of children is not economically rewarding. Likewise, a rich father will give his children enough money, but not spend time with them, because he thinks that his time is better spent on economic activities as those activities will make him richer. The reverse happens when poverty strikes. Now, people start caring for each other because they know that they will survive poverty only by sticking together, ensuring that everyone is taken care of collectively.

The roots of economic decline are not in economics. They are in human psychology. When people get rich, they start valuing money more than love, human relationships, duty, and morality. They start pursuing prosperity for the sake of prosperity. Since they are not receiving love because they are not themselves loving, they become ensnared by sensuality, immorality, which eventually leads to poverty. Thus a cycle is created in which focusing exclusively on prosperity leads to poverty. Then, when a person becomes poor, he realizes the value of love, duty, and morals, and that realization gradually brings back prosperity.

Delays in the Cycle of Change

The other harder part is understanding that even when love declines, economic prosperity doesn’t decline immediately. Similarly, even if morality declines, economic prosperity doesn’t decline immediately. The economy declines eventually when hedonism, immorality, and criminality become common. Since the economy keeps growing even as love and morality are declining in a society, therefore, people like to think that this growth is because of the growing sensuality, selfishness, and immorality.

This is indeed the dominant economic narrative at the present time, where an increase in selfishness and hedonism, combined with the decline in love and morality, are viewed as the causes of the rise of Western societies. Capitalistic propaganda states that people must be more individualistic, hedonistic, greedy, and selfish to grow economically, and morality or duty are just hurdles for economic growth. They don’t realize that the journey toward decline already began when love died and sensuality replaced it; they don’t know that the journey toward disaster became inevitable as morality started declining. The inevitable poverty, as a result of sensuality and immorality, appears much later when it is too late. By then, there is absolutely no hope for making society moral and loving, without extreme poverty.

Economics, Sociology, and Psychology

Economics, sociology, and psychology are inextricably linked because when love increases, morality increases too, and that causes economic growth; conversely, when love dies, it is replaced by lust, which leads to immorality, which then leads to economic decline. Since economic decline comes much after love has died and has been replaced by lust, therefore, economic theorists who separate psychology, sociology, and economics attribute the growing economy to increasing lust and sensuality. Thereby, a false narrative about progress based on lust and greed is created in economics.

However, when we see the world through the lens of dharma, artha, and kāma, then, the loving kāma leads to moralistic dharma, which then leads to economic prosperity or artha. Conversely, the lusty kāma leads to immoral social rules and regulations, which then leads to the decline of artha. By separating economics, sociology, and psychology, false theories about each of these are created. Human happiness is then predicated on sense-enjoyment, sociology is meant only for economic growth, and economics is reduced to the acquisition of more material goods, without love and morals.

Thus, the cycle of history is not understood due to academic separations of economics, sociology, and psychology, and false narratives about linear progress are produced based on a limited understanding of the true process of material change. However, if we combine dharma, artha, and kāma, then we can see their interdependence, how the rise in love leads to morality and economic prosperity, and how economic prosperity kills love because that prosperity becomes the sole aim of life to the complete disregard for love and morality.

Cyclical Change Caused by Contradictions

The connection between love, morality, and prosperity, or its obverse, namely, lust, criminality, and poverty, remains hidden due to the lack of understanding of the three modes that compete for domination because we are unable to find that which is simultaneously true, right, and good. This connection also remains hidden because we have false notions of prosperity, love, and morality that are indeed contrary to their obverse, namely, poverty, lust, and criminality, when the fact is that true prosperity, love, and morality have no duality or opposites.

There is a kind of prosperity that involves living in a village on the foothills of a mountain, surrounded by a forest, and traversed by a river, where there is abundant milk, grains, and fruits, and life is lived easily and happily. By our mundane definition of prosperity—which involves skyscrapers, highways, fast cars, and jet engines—life in a village seems poverty, but it is better because it is stable. The stability results from the increase in morals and love achieved by that prosperity. The mundane ideas of prosperity are unstable because they lead to lust and immorality. Thus, a certain kind of prosperity produces linear progress, and another kind of prosperity produces a cycle.

Similarly, there is a notion of lust in which our senses are pleased by pleasing the senses of others, which is just like love. The sensual lust to please the senses of others is a better lust because it serves everyone. When lust is used in this way, then happiness grows continuously. Finally, there is a notion of immorality in which lies may sometimes be told to please others, things can be forcibly taken from others to assert one’s domination over the loved person, and the competitor may be cheated to make him win because everyone is trying to make the other person win. This immorality is better than the ordinary notions of morality because it makes everyone happier.

Thus, the Vedic texts state that the ideal notion of love, prosperity, and poverty is non-dualistic meaning that it involves lust, poverty, and immorality, but these are reconciled in a way that there is no contradiction between the opposites. Likewise, the non-dualistic ideas of love, prosperity, and morality continuously reinforce each other, thus creating linear progression rather than a cycle. Conversely, the non-ideal notions of love, prosperity, and morality are opposed to lust, poverty, and immorality. The non-ideal notions of love, prosperity, and morality are also incompatible with each other such that prosperity destroys love, and poverty restores love. The cycle of change is produced when the ideal is converted into its non-ideal, which creates oppositions between non-ideals, and each opposite struggles for domination.

By creating contradictions between the three modes, and between the false notions of love, prosperity, and morality with their opposites, a cycle of dominant-subordinate change is produced and the resulting cycle of change produces the temporal evolution we call history.

History Can Be Spiritual

The study of history that illuminates this cycle from prosperity to poverty, from love to lust, from morality to criminality, and vice versa, is not just a mundane subject. If illuminated properly, the same subject can also create an understanding of the true meaning of love, morality, and prosperity. While the Vedic system neglected mundane history, it also emphasized the cyclical nature of time.

If history is presented as this cyclical change, then it is not contrary to the Vedic system. Viewed through the lens of cyclical time, and its cause in the duality and three modes of nature, the cycles of history offer valuable spiritual lessons apart from the understanding of the evolution of history itself.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Cycle of History," in Shabda Journal, September 18, 2021,