“Among the Daitya demons I am the devoted Prahlada; among subduers I am time; among the beasts I am the lion, and among birds I am Garuda, the feathered carrier of Vishnu.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 10.30)
prahlādaś cāsmi daityānāṁ
kālaḥ kalayatām aham
mṛgāṇāṁ ca mṛgendro ‘haṁ
vainateyaś ca pakṣiṇām
Who doesn’t get excited for their birthday? It’s a day where all the attention gets focused on you. If you are still relatively young, people will give you presents. Your parents might throw a party in your honor. People ask what you want to do. They try their best to be nicer to you. They want you to be happy. They want to make the day memorable.
Yet what exactly is a birthday? It commemorates the day in the calendar year when you first emerged from the womb. If that event occurred five years ago, it means that you have lived five years on the earth. You have survived that many number of years in a world that is difficult. In Sanskrit the material world is compared to a fort that is difficult to overcome; hence the name of Durga for the superintendent of that world.
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, leaning on the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita and Vedic philosophy in general, gives a different perspective on the birthday. Instead of marking how many years the person has lived, he says that it represents how many years the person has died. Not trying to ruin the party, the reference is to bring awareness to the reality of time. The word for time in Sanskrit is kala. Interestingly, it is synonymous with death.
In the Bhagavad-gita, Shri Krishna says that among things that subdue He is time. Kala thus represents time, death and the Supreme Lord. It makes sense that if the Supreme Lord is the original cause of everything, sarva-karana-karanam, He would also be responsible for destruction. And destruction is guaranteed to happen. This is the real reason for the sober analysis by those versed in Vedic philosophy. Everything we see around us is destined for destruction. It is already gone in a sense. The moment of change is simply relying on the ticking of time. When time arrives, there is nothing that can be done to preserve that which is slated to change.
Yet isn’t this the precise reason for celebrating? We know that we aren’t going to live forever. We know that death can approach at any moment. That’s why we celebrate things like birthdays and wedding anniversaries. We know that time is a formidable foe. We are thankful on these days for time having spared us.
The wise take it a step further, however. If time will destroy everything, and I am currently situated in that time continuum, what is it that remains? I have maintained my identity through the many changes brought on by time that have occurred already. That means that I must continue to exist. The Bhagavad-gita confirms this.
na tv evāhaṁ jātu nāsaṁ
na tvaṁ neme janādhipāḥ
na caiva na bhaviṣyāmaḥ
sarve vayam ataḥ param
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.12)
If I am going to continue to persist as time passes, what should I do with myself? Is there something I can do that will not get destroyed? In fact, there is. Work for the Supreme Lord is unique. It does not fall under the jurisdiction of karma. Karma, the living entity, the material nature, time and the Supreme Controller – these topics are important to understand in a material existence. Karma is work the individual living entity does that manipulates the collection of material elements surrounding the soul. The change in those elements occurs through time, which is managed by the Supreme Controller.
The person who acts in devotion, however, is not affected by the material nature or time. They get the direct favor of the Supreme Controller, who rewards them with residence in His realm after death. Death is merely the changing of bodies, so the real meaning is that Shri Krishna facilitates the travel of His devotees from the fortress-like material realm to the open and free spiritual world.
You find time in that land, but it has no negative effect. It does not destroy the body. One description for Shri Krishna is nava-yauvanam. He is always fresh and new. The same applies to devotion to Him. A person can continue chanting the holy names for their entire life and not grow tired of it. There is no limit to the love kept in the heart of the devotee. They are compassion personified, and they get all good qualities through their devotion. The Supreme Lord kindly manipulates time so that it acts in their favor, making the existence blissful in any situation and any realm.
When time the birthday presenting,
Number of years died representing.
Though happy am I now to live,
Eventually up this body to give.
Work for permanent, is there a way?
Where efforts into future to stay.
Devotional path, by time Himself controlled,
Best destination for devoted soul to unfold.