Age after age, when the flame of righteousness burns dangerously low, when right action is all but nonexistent, the divine preserving force that we call Vishnu assumes a form appropriate to the times and sets the universe back on course for a while.
In Indian cosmology, time is a cyclical sequence of four ages, or yugas. In the first, golden age, known as the Satya Yuga, dharma—righteousness, cosmic order—is full and complete.
People treat one another with compassion and care for the old and sick and misfortunate, rulers are just, the earth is fertile, the waters are pure, animals are not mistreated, wisdom is pursued, and the gods are respected.
In such an atmosphere, there is very little suffering.
However, it is the nature of things that, over time, dharma, like all things, gradually decays, until, at the end of the fourth age, the Kali Yuga, circumstances have so far deteriorated that divine intervention is required to rescue the righteous who have survived and establish a new golden age.
The Puranas (Hindu legends and folklore) list some of the symptoms of the Kali Yuga, when adharma—disorder and unrighteousness—will be rampant:
• Human beings will turn away from God. Priests will be corrupt.
• Rulers will cease to protect the people and will appropriate all the wealth and resources for themselves.
• Displaced persons will wander from one country to another and find no refuge.
• Base men will be esteemed as sages.
• People will prefer falsehood over truthfulness.
• Water will be lacking. The god of clouds will be inconsistent in distributing rain; there will be both floods and drought. Agriculture will fail.
• Lack of wealth will be considered dishonorable. Those without money will be unable to get justice, and anyone who can cleverly juggle words will be esteemed as a scholar.
• Deceit, falsehood, lethargy, sleepiness, violence, despondency, grief, delusion, fear, and poverty will prevail.
• Religion, truthfulness, cleanliness, forgiveness, mercy, life span, physical strength, and memory will decrease more and more with time. People will wear ragged clothes made of leaves and tree bark. They will subsist on honey, vegetables, roots, fruits, leaves, and flowers. No one will live longer than 22 years. They will seek refuge underground and in the deep valleys between mountains.
According to the Puranas, when the tide of disorder and suffering is at its height, toward the very end of the Kali Yuga, it is prophesied that Vishnu will be born in the village of Shambhala, to Brahmin parents, as Kalki, the avatar who carries a sword and rides a white horse. He will destroy the tyrants and everyone motivated by evil acts and thoughts. He will reestablish order.
Those who remain will find themselves awakening as if from a terrible dream. Their minds will become as clear as crystal. They will rediscover their svadharma—their purpose in life, their unique abilities and gifts, the ways in which only they can serve their community and the universe. These survivors will be the seeds of a new humanity, and their children will establish a new golden age.
Exactly when is this supposed to happen? In Western calendar terms, we can’t exactly say. There is a general opinion that we are, indeed, in the Kali Yuga, and that it began soon after the end of the Mahabharata War, which is guesstimated to have occurred from 3113 to 3100 BC. But how deeply are we in? And, more to the point, when will it end? 2025 seems to be a popular date, although 2012 was proposed as well.
Right now, we can search our hearts and minds for the symptoms of adharma.
But to think literally is to miss the point. Right now, we can search our hearts and minds for the symptoms of adharma. Are we self-interested, lethargic, distracted, lacking in mercy? Are we candidates for a good soul-cleansing? Is it time to call in the cavalry? Quite possibly, yes. Which practices can help us embody the radical, eleventh-hour cleansing and rebooting energies of Kalki?
It is said to benefit circulation throughout the body, promote flexibility in the upper body, strengthen the bones of the lower body, and correct minor asymmetry in the hips and legs. However, it is not commonly taught—partly because, as B.K.S. Iyengar comments in Light on Yoga, “In the beginning, it will be difficult to balance and the knees will be painful. With practice, the pain disappears and the balance is achieved.”
Placing a folded blanket or extra mat under your standing knee should make the pose more comfortable. However, this pose should be avoided or approached with caution by people with hip, knee, or shoulder-joint issues.
If you are at home in garudasana and padmasana and can attempt this one safely, I encourage you to explore it and, if you like, journal about your mental and physical experience.
Here is one way to practice the pose, according to Iyengar:
In tadasana (mountain pose), bring your right foot to the top of your left thigh in ardha padmasana (half lotus).
Fold forward from the hips and place your hands on the floor for balance. Keep your weight back as you slowly descend into a deep squat on your left side, bending your left knee until the left heel and right knee rest on the floor. Once you are stable, straighten your torso and “stand” on your right knee and the sole of your left foot.
Wrap your arms around each other as in garudasana, with the right arm on top. Stay for 30 seconds, then bring your right leg out of lotus and stand up (straightening both legs). Switch sides.
You would think it might be easier to enter this pose from all fours, but not necessarily: It requires great flexibility to bring your back foot around and rest it in the groin of the front leg. However, you can do a variation in which you stand on both knees rather than one knee and one foot.
Place your doubled mat in front of a chair seat. Kneel roughly six inches away from the chair. Rest your right hand on the chair seat for balance. With your left hand, reach down to grasp your right foot and bring the right foot into your left hip crease, or as high up the left thigh as it will go comfortably. Once you feel stable, lift the right arm overhead. (Imagine this arm brandishing your sword like Kalki!)
If you can establish the right foot firmly in the left groin and balance on both knees, then experiment with eagle arms or bringing your hands into namaskar (anjali mudra).
The challenge of finding stability and ease in a posture that is initially both uncomfortable and unstable may be peculiarly appropriate for living in the Kali Yuga. The real question for each of us is: How do I achieve equanimity in the face of great chaos? How do I maintain my svadharma when the world around me seems to be falling apart? How can I channel my “inner Kalki,” the one who knows how to destroy the parts of me that subvert inner and outer peace and knows how to nurture the seeds of Self-realization?