A kalpa is a long period of time (aeon) in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, generally between the creation and recreation of a world or universe.
Kalpa (Sanskrit: कल्प, lit. 'a formation or creation'), sometimes spelled calpa in British English, in this context, means "a long period of time (aeon) related to the lifetime of the universe (creation)", where its archaic spelling is kalp, with other forms of kalpam, kalpānāṃ, and kalpe, derived from klip (Sanskrit: कॢप्, romanized: kḷp, lit. 'to create, prepare, form, produce, compose, invent').
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In Hinduism, a kalpa is equal to 4.32 billion years, a "day of Brahma" or one thousand mahayugas, measuring the duration of the world. Each kalpa is divided into 14 manvantara periods, each lasting 71 Yuga Cycles (306,720,000 years). Preceding the first and following each manvantara period is a juncture (sandhya) equal to the length of a Satya Yuga (1,728,000 years). A kalpa is followed by a pralaya (dissolution) of equal length, which together constitute a day and night of Brahma. A month of Brahma contains thirty such days and nights, or 259.2 billion years. According to the Mahabharata, 12 months of Brahma (=360 days) constitute his year, and 100 such years his life called a maha-kalpa (311.04 trillion years or 36,000 kalpa + 36,000 pralaya). Fifty years of Brahma are supposed to have elapsed, and we are now in the Shveta-Varaha Kalpa or the first day of his fifty-first year. At the end of a kalpa, the world is annihilated by fire.
The definition of a kalpa equaling 4.32 billion years is found in the Puranas—specifically Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana.
The duration of the material universe is limited. It is manifested in cycles of kalpas. A kalpa is a day of Brahmā, and one day of Brahmā consists of a thousand cycles of four yugas, or ages: Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. ... These four yugas, rotating a thousand times, comprise one day of Brahmā, and the same number comprise one night. Brahmā lives one hundred of such "years" and then dies. These "hundred years" total 311 trillion 40 billion (311,040,000,000,000) earth years. By these calculations the life of Brahmā seems fantastic and interminable, but from the viewpoint of eternity it is as brief as a lightning flash. In the Causal Ocean there are innumerable Brahmās rising and disappearing like bubbles. Brahmā and his creation are all part of the material universe, and therefore they are in constant flux.— Brihat Swasthani Brata Katha
The Matsya Purana (290.3–12) lists the names of 30 kalpas, each named by Brahma based on a significant event in the kalpa and the most glorious person in the beginning of the kalpa. These 30 kalpas or days (along with 30 pralayas or nights) form a 30-day month of Brahma.
The Vayu Purana has a different list of names for 33 kalpas, which G. V. Tagare describes as fanciful derivations.
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In the Pali language of early Buddhism, the word kalpa takes the form kappa, and is mentioned in the assumed oldest scripture of Buddhism, the Sutta Nipata. This speaks of "Kappâtita: one who has gone beyond time, an Arahant". This part of the Buddhist manuscripts dates back to the middle part of the last millennium BCE.
Gautama Buddha claimed an incalculable number of Buddhas lived in previous kalpas: Vipassi Buddha 91 kalpas ago, Sikhi Buddha 31 kalpas ago, and three prior Buddhas in the present kalpa. He confines his teachings to the present kalpa, the duration of which he doesn't arithmetically define, but uses a similitude:
Were a man to take a piece of cloth of this most delicate texture [of fine cotton], and therewith to touch in the slightest possible manner, once in a hundred years, a solid rock, free from earth, a yojana [~14 miles] high, and as much broad, the time would come when it would be worn down, by this imperceptible trituration, to the size of a mung or undu seed. This period would be immense in its duration; but it has been declared by Buddha that it would not be equal to a Maha Kalpa.
A similar similitude is found in the Mountain Pabbata Sutta (SN 15:5) of the Pali Canon:
Suppose there were a great mountain of rock—a league long, a league wide, a league high, uncracked, uncavitied, a single mass—and a man would come along once every hundred years and rub it once with a Kāsi cloth. More quickly would that great mountain of rock waste away and be consumed by that effort, but not the eon [kalpa]. That’s how long, monk, an eon is.— Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu (translator)
Described in the Vibhanga division of the Abhidhamma Pitaka are sixteen rupa brahma lokas (worlds or planes) and four higher arupa brahma lokas, each attained through the imperfect, medial or perfect performance of the four states of jhana (meditation), granting a duration of life measured in kalpas that exceed the top-most heavenly loka of 9.216 billion years:
At the termination of each kalpa, the lower three rupa brahma lokas, attained through the 1st jhana, and everything below them (six heavens, Earth, etc.) are destroyed by fire (seven suns), only to later again come into being.
In one explanation, there are four different lengths of kalpas. A regular kalpa is approximately 16 million years long (16,798,000 years), and a small kalpa is 1000 regular kalpas, or about 16.8 billion years. Further, a medium kalpa is roughly 336 billion years, the equivalent of 20 small kalpas. A great kalpa is four medium kalpas.
The Buddha did not give the exact length of the maha-kalpa in terms of years. However, he gave several astounding analogies to understand it.
In one instance, when some monks wanted to know how many kalpas had elapsed so far, Buddha gave the below analogy:
Another definition of Kalpa is the world where Buddhas are born. There are generally 2 types of kalpa, Suñña-Kalpa and Asuñña-kalpa. The Suñña-Kalpa is the world where no Buddha is born. Asuñña-Kalpa is the world where at least one Buddha is born. There are 5 types of Asuñña-Kalpa:
The previous kalpa was the Vyuhakalpa (Glorious aeon), the present kalpa is called the Bhadrakalpa (Auspicious aeon), and the next kalpa will be the Nakshatrakalpa (Constellation aeon).
Kalpa Imperial (Imperial Kalpa, 1983-1984) is a collection of short stories by Argentine speculative fiction author Angélica Gorodischer. She details the history of a vast imaginary empire through tales of fantasy, fable, and allegory. It does this in a way that gained many admirers who deem it to be one of the finest genre works of Argentina. Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin in 2003, it also gained supporters in the English-speaking world. A part of the work appeared as a story in the American anthology Starlight 2.
In The Elder Scrolls series of action role-playing video games, the concept of kalpas is used to represent the life-cycles of the world.
In City at the End of Time, a science fiction novel by Greg Bear, Kalpa is a fortress city built on Earth by descendants of humans in the last period of the Universe to protect themselves from the Chaos that is devouring it.
In Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, the kalpas are represented by five optional dungeons of increasing size, which are designed to test the player. Each kalpa is designed to appear deeper, darker, and more neglected than the previous, signifying the large expanse of time a kalpa truly represents. Nocturne contains many Buddhist and Hindu themes, although they are mostly left to interpretation as the game does little in the way of direct explanation of its themes.
The cycle [of creation and destruction] is either called a yuga (MBh. 1.1.28; 12.327.89; 13.135.11), a kalpa, meaning a formation or a creation (MBh. 6.31.7 [= BhG. 9.7]; 12.326.70; 12.327.23), or a day of the brahman, or of Brahmā, the creator god (MBh. 12.224.28–31). Sometimes, it is simply referred to as the process of creation and destruction (saṃhāravikṣepa; MBh. 12.271.30, 40, 43, 47–49).
One great kalpa consists of the four medium kalpas of formation, statis, dissolution, and nothingness. In other words, from the formation of one billion-world universe, through its destruction, until the beginning of the formation of its replacement billion-world universe is a great kalpa.
Rarely have author and translator been such an effortless pairing. Kalpa Imperial is a powerful introduction to the writing of Angélica Gorodischer, a novel that will enthrall readers already familiar with the worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.
A kalpa is an epoch of time consisting of the birth, life, and death of a world. For example, the Dawn Era and its chaos is said to have been the end of a previous kalpa, and the beginning of another. These segments of time are sometimes subject to interruptions called Dragon Breaks.