Geochronology: Theosophy and Science

  • The Secret Doctrine
  • F.J. Dick & W. Scott
  • Science vs. theosophy
  • The age of the earth (4/19)

  • The Secret Doctrine

    In H.P. Blavatsky’s day scientists gave widely differing estimates of the length of the geological periods. For instance, the Eocene was variously claimed to have begun 15 or 2.5 million years ago, and the incrusted age of the earth was put at between 10 million and 1000 million years (SD 2:685, 796). HPB remarks: ‘whatever figures are given by Occult Science, they are sure to be corroborated by those of some one among the modern men of Science’ (SD 2:10fn).

    In a section of The Secret Doctrine on ‘esoteric geological chronology’ (2:709-15), HPB says that the approximate duration of the geological periods can be calculated by combining scientific and occult data. Geologists are able to determine the thickness of the various deposits: roughly speaking, she says, the Primordial rocks are 70,000 ft thick, the Primary 42,000 ft, the Secondary 15,000 ft, the Tertiary 5000 ft, and the Quaternary about 500 ft. She then quotes the relative lengths of the geological periods given by Prof. André Lefèvre, who made ‘due allowance for variations in the rate of deposit’: Primordial Age 53.5%, Primary 32.2%, Secondary 11.5%, Tertiary 2.3%, and Quaternary 0.5%. Finally, she converts these percentages into years on the basis of the occult fact that ‘the time which has elapsed since the first sedimentary deposits = 320,000,000 years’:

         Duration in years
        Began (years
           (rough approximation)    before present)
       { Laurentian   }  
       Primordial  { Cambrian  }
       { Silurian   }  
       { Devonian   }  
      Primary  { Coal   }
       { Permian   }  
       { Triassic   }  
       Secondary   { Jurassic   }
       { Cretaceous   }  
       { Eocene   }  
      Tertiary   { Miocene   }
       { Pliocene   }
      (probably in excess)
      (probably in excess)

    HPB comments: ‘Such estimates harmonise with the statements of Esoteric Ethnology in almost every particular.’

    The relative lengths of the Primordial, Primary, Secondary, Tertiary and Quaternary periods given by Lefèvre can be found in his book Philosophy: Historical and Critical (1879, pp. 480-1; the French edition, La Philosophie, appeared in the same year). He does not mention the thicknesses of the geological strata and does not explain where his percentages come from. The thicknesses given by HPB do not match Lefèvre’s percentages; the biggest difference is that the thickness she gives for the Tertiary corresponds to a percentage that is 1.5 percentage points higher than the one she cites. However, the thicknesses would match the percentages almost exactly if the thickness of Tertiary strata were changed from 5000 ft to 3000 ft. All the thicknesses would then be the same as those given by Ernst Haeckel in The History of Creation (1880, v. 2, pp. 19-20). Haeckel says that the thickness of Quaternary strata is ‘500 to 700 feet’. Using 700 ft results in the following percentages (rounded to one decimal place), as presented by Haeckel: Primordial 53.6%, Primary 32.1%, Secondary 11.5%, Tertiary 2.3%, Quaternary 0.5%. The thicknesses and percentages given by Haeckel are cited in an article by Edward Clodd (‘The antiquity of Man in Western Europe’, part 1, Knowledge, v. 1, 1882) that Blavatsky used as a source in writing The Secret Doctrine. In the case of the Primordial and Primary, the percentages given by Lefèvre/HPB differ from Haeckel’s (and Clodd’s), but only by 0.1 of a percentage point. Because the durations of the geological periods calculated by HPB are based on the percentages she states, not the rock thicknesses, the apparent error in the thickness she gives for Tertiary strata is of no consequence.

    Lefèvre’s book appeared a year before vol. 2 of Haeckel’s The History of Creation. The first German edition of Haeckel’s work, entitled Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, appeared in 1868. It gave the thicknesses for the Primordial, Primary, Secondary and Tertiary (pp. 301-2), but not for the Quaternary, and did not mention their relative lengths. However, the second German edition (1870, pp. 349-50), and later editions, contained the same information as the English edition of 1880 and could have been the source for the percentages presented by Lefèvre. The French version of Lefèvre’s book gives the following percentages: 53.5, 32.1, 11.5, 2.3, and 0.5, which only add up to 99.9% (2nd edition, p. 478). The English edition ‘corrects’ this by changing 32.1 to 32.2, bringing the total percentage to 100. If, instead, Lefèvre had changed 53.5 to 53.6, his percentages would have precisely matched Haeckel’s, which exactly correspond to the thicknesses Haeckel gives for the geological strata (provided the figure for the Quaternary is taken to be 700 ft). These minor discrepancies have little impact on HPB’s overall calculations. However, using HPB’s figure of 500 ft for Quaternary strata actually results in a relative duration of 0.38% (not 0.5%), or 1.2 million years, which would be less ‘in excess’ than the duration of 1.6 million years given in the above table.

    The figure of 320 million years refers only to the length of the present, fourth round of the earth’s evolution: ‘sedimentation began in this Round approximately over 320 million years ago’, but ‘even a greater time elapsed during the preparation of this globe for the Fourth Round previous to stratification’ (SD 2:715fn). (Sedimentation is the formation of rocks by the accumulation and consolidation of mineral and organic fragments that have been deposited by water, ice or wind.)

    G. de Purucker states: ‘According to the Esoteric Tradition, it is some 320,000,000 years since sedimentation began on this globe in this fourth round, nor does this long lapse of time fully include the evolution of the three kingdoms of the elementals which preceded the mineral activities beginning such sedimentation.’ He adds that the first human root-race did not begin until after the awakenment from their obscuration of the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms (except the mammals, which in the fourth round followed man) (The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd ed., 159-60; Dialogues of G. de Purucker, 3:181-2).

    Purucker also says: ‘When the Masters or H.P.B. speak of the 320 million years since sedimentation on our earth took place, they refer to the beginning of this round on globe A; and when the impulse of the three elemental kingdoms, followed by the mineral kingdom, reached our earth, then not only sedimentation but volcanic action began’ (Studies in Occult Philosophy, 288, 422).

    These quotations could be interpreted to mean that geological activity began on globe D at virtually the same time as on globe A. But if 320 million years is just an approximate, rounded figure, the two events could be separated by millions of years. Indeed, Purucker also says that sedimentation began on globe D between 300 and 320 million years ago (Dialogues, 3:181).

    HPB says that the lengths of the Tertiary and Quaternary as given in the above table are ‘probably in excess’. This is also implied by her statement that only if the Quaternary period is allowed 1,500,000 years does our fifth root-race belong to it (SD 2:715). Another indication is provided by HPB’s comments on the submergence of the islands of Ruta and (part of) Daitya (see SD 1:650-1; GdeP, Studies in Occult Philosophy, 19, 24). The date most commonly given for this event is 850,000 years ago, another being 869,000 years ago (SD 2:147). HPB writes:

    The Tertiary Atlantean part-cycle, from the ‘apex of glory’ of that Race in the early Eocene to the great mid-Miocene cataclysm, would appear to have lasted some 3½ to four million years. If the duration of the Quaternary is not rather (as seems likely) overestimated, the sinking of Ruta and Daitya would be post-Tertiary. It is probable that the results here given allow somewhat too long a period to both the Tertiary and Quaternary, as the Third Race goes very far back into the Secondary Age. (SD 2:710)
    A date of 850,000 years would fall in the mid-Quaternary according to the above table, but HPB implies here that the sinking of Ruta actually occurred in the (late) Tertiary.

    This is supported by several other statements:
    • The destruction of Ruta and Daitya occurred 850,000 years ago ‘in the later Pliocene times’ (SD 2:314).
    • The main continent of Atlantis perished in Miocene times, but the ‘Pliocene portions’ began gradually sinking 900,000 years ago, at the time of the first appearance of the Aryan race; most of the later islander Atlanteans perished between 850,000 and 700,000 years ago, and the Aryans were 200,000 years old when the first great island or continent was submerged (SD 2:395).

    We can conclude that the transition from the Tertiary to the Quaternary (or from the Pliocene to the Pleistocene epoch) took place between 900,000 and 700,000 years ago rather than 1,600,000 years ago.

    HPB writes: ‘This event, the destruction of the famous island of Ruta and the smaller one Daitya, which occurred 850,000 years ago in the later Pliocene times, must not be confounded with the submersion of the main continent of Atlantis during the Miocene period’ (SD 2:314fn). But in the next sentence she says: ‘Geologists cannot place the Miocene only so short a way back as 850,000 years; whatever they do, it is several million years ago that the main Atlantis perished.’ She also states: ‘The first of these [family races] (the “Aryan-Asiatics”) witnessed the doom of the last of the populations of the “giant Atlanteans” who perished some 850,000 years ago (the Ruta and Daitya Island-Continents) toward the close of the Miocene Age’ (SD 2:433). The idea that the Miocene ended only 850,000 years ago clashes with all other statements on this subject and is undoubtedly a blind.

    F.J. Dick & W. Scott

    In an article entitled ‘The age of the earth’ (The Theosophical Path, April 1919, pp. 369-79), Frederick J. Dick and William Scott provide more detailed figures on the thicknesses of the geological strata. Using the same method as HPB, they present the following ‘rough outline of the earth’s physical history’:

      Period     Approx. thickness     Began (years BP)
        of strata (ft)
      Pleistocene etc.

    (The thicknesses for Tertiary and Quaternary deposits have been rounded off by the authors and therefore do not exactly correspond to the dates.)

    According to these figures, the Eocene began 7,870,000 years ago and the Pleistocene 870,000 years ago, as compared with HPB’s dates of 8,960,000 BP and 1,600,000 BP, which she says are ‘probably in excess’. The revised dates for the Tertiary are also in good agreement with HPB’s statement that the period from the apex of glory of the Atlanteans in the early Eocene to the mid-Miocene cataclysm lasted some 3.5 to 4 million years (SD 2:710).

    Science vs. theosophy

    Since Blavatsky’s day science has established an almost universally accepted geological timescale, based largely on radiometric dating. However, radiometric dates are valid only if radioactive decay rates remain constant during the period in question. From a theosophical viewpoint, not only are decay rates far from constant; during the arc of descent, comprising the first half of the earth’s life, the dominant trend was towards the condensation and materialization of matter – the opposite of radioactivity. The ascending arc began a few million years ago, and dematerialization or etherealization has now become the dominant trend. Radioactivity is a sign of dematerialization, and can be expected to increase in intensity and affect more and more elements as the earth continues to evolve along the upward arc. Because science takes no account of the arc of descent, its use of radiometric dating is flawed, and this explains why the durations it assigns to the geological periods are excessively long.

    Instead of apportioning the 320 million years that have elapsed since the start of the 4th round to the geologic periods on the basis of the relative thickness of the geologic strata, this could be done on the basis of the relative length in years derived from radiometric dates. However, the percentages differ markedly from those given by HPB and by Dick & Scott, as the following table shows:

         Lefèvre/HPB     Dick & Scott    Modern science

    Clearly use of the scientific percentages would lead to dates very different to those given by HPB.

    The table below shows the modern scientific dates for the geological periods alongside theosophical dates. The scientific dates are taken from the 2013 International Stratigraphic Chart ( Modern geological nomenclature differs in some respects from that used by Blavatsky. For instance, the Eocene is now divided into Paleocene, Eocene and Oligocene, and the Ordovician period has been inserted between the Cambrian and Silurian, and comprises part of both. The Cambrian is now taken as the beginning of the Palaeozoic era. The Laurentian would fall into the Precambrian era; in HPB’s time ‘Laurentian’ denoted the 30,000 ft of rocks underlying the Cambrian strata, but the term is no longer used in this sense. The scientific date for the Laurentian has been calculated on the basis of the thicknesses of the Palaeozoic and Laurentian strata given by Dick & Scott, and the duration of the Palaeozoic era according to radiometric dating. In 2009 the International Union of Geological Sciences redefined the Pleistocene to include part of the preceding Pliocene, moving the start date back from 1.806 to 2.588 million years ago.

    The theosophical figures are those given by Dick & Scott, with a few alterations and additions. The duration of the Paleocene, Eocene and Oligocene has been determined by dividing up Dick & Scott’s Eocene according to the maximum thickness of the Palaeocene, Eocene and Oligocene strata according to science (3658 m, 9144 m and 7925 m respectively; R. Milton, The Facts of Life, 1992, plate 1). The duration of the Cambrian, Ordovician and Silurian has been determined using the same method (thickness: 12,200 m, 12,200 m, and 10,400 m respectively). The beginning of the Pleistocene has been moved back to include the same proportion of the Pliocene as in the revised scientific scheme.

    Major pulses of tectonic activity on earth are dated radiometrically at around 3000-2800, 2600-2500, 2200-2000, 1800-1600, 1200, 1000-900, and 600-500 million years ago. The last of these corresponds to the onset of the fourth round.

                        Began (years BP)
        Began (years BP)
    Phanerozoic eon   
      Cenozoic era   
      Quaternary period:   
        Holocene epoch
      Tertiary period:   
        Pliocene epoch
      Mesozoic era   
      Palaeozoic era   
    Proterozoic eon   
    320,000,000 (start of 4th round)
    (720,000,000; start of 3rd round?)
    Archean eon   
        (1,220,000,000; start of 2nd round?)
    Hadean eon
    1,973,000,000 (start of 1st round)

    The age of the earth

    ‘Make thy calculations, O Lanoo, if thou wouldst learn the correct age of thy small wheel.’ (Stanzas of Dzyan, 6:7)

    In Hindu philosophy, one lifetime of the earth is called a day of Brahmā. It is said to last 4,320,000,000 years, and to be followed by a night of Brahmā of equal length. A day of Brahmā, or kalpa, consists of 14 manvantaras of 306,720,000 years each, framed by 15 sandhis (a ‘dawn’ or ‘twilight’) of 1,728,000 years each. Each manvantara of 306,720,000 years consists of 71 mahā-yugas of 4,320,000 years. Each mahā-yuga consists of a krita- (or satya-) yuga of 1,728,000 years, a tretā-yuga of 1,296,000 years, a dvāpara-yuga of 864,000 years, and a kali-yuga of 432,000 years (SD 2:69-70).

    We are currently in the kali-yuga of the twenty-eighth age (mahā-yuga) of the seventh manvantara (Isis Unveiled, 1:32). The kali-yuga began in February 3102 BC.* On the basis of this information, the time that has elapsed since the beginning of the present day of Brahmā up to February 2000 can be calculated as follows:

    6 manvantaras (1,840,320,000) + 7 sandhis (12,096,000) + 27 mahā-yugas (116,640,000) + 1 krita-yuga (1,728,000) + 1 tretā-yuga (1,296,000) + 1 dvāpara-yuga (864,000) + the time from the beginning of kali-yuga (3102 + 2000 - 1)** = 1,972,949,101 years.

    *According to the Brahmans of Tiruvarur, the astronomical epoch began at sunrise on 18 February 3102 BC, and the civil era began at about 2.27 am on 16 February 3102 BC (SD 1:661-2). The kali-yuga is also said to have begun at midnight between 17 and 18 February 3102 BC (SD 2:435; Blavatsky Collected Writings, 5:58; R.L. Thompson, Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy, 1989, pp. 19-22).
    **The date of 3102 BC for the start of the kali-yuga is a chronological date rather than an astronomical date; in chronological dating there is no year zero between 1 BC and 1 AD, whereas in astronomical dating there is. In calculating the time that has elapsed since the beginning of kali-yuga and 2000, it is therefore necessary to subtract ‘1’ in the above sum. (If we used the equivalent astronomical date of 3101 BC, there would be no need for this.) That 3102 BC is a chronological date is indicated by J.S. Bailly in a calculation quoted in the SD (1:666-7), and is confirmed by Subba Row (Esoteric Writings, pp. 55-6; BCW 5:261-2). Hence the first 5000 years of the kali-yuga ended in February 1899 (= 5000 - 3102 + 1) and not in 1897/98, contrary to what is often stated (see Theos. Forum, Nov. 1937, p. 394).

    The time that elapsed from the beginning of the present kalpa up to 1887 was therefore: 1,972,948,998 years. However, according to The Secret Doctrine (2:68), the Tamil calendar called the Tiru-ganita Pañchānga, which was published annually in both Tamil and Telegu, gives the following figures:

    From the beginning of cosmic evolution up to 1887     1,955,884,687 years
    The (astral) mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms up to man, have
    taken to evolve
    300,000,000 years*
    Time from the first appearance of ‘humanity’ on our planetary chain     1,664,500,987 years

    HPB points out that subtracting 300,000,000 from the first figure gives 1,655,884,687, which differs from the third figure. She says that she cannot account for this discrepancy. She also states that the school of Pandit Dayanand Sarasvatī, founder of the Ārya Samaj, gives yet another date: 1,960,852,987 years.

    *As HPB says, these Brahmanical figures refer to the evolution beginning on globe A in the first round. But she points out that the period of 300,000,000 years also applies to the start of the fourth round: ‘The astral prototypes of the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms up to man have taken that time (300 million years) to evolve, re-forming out of the cast-off materials of the preceding Round, which, though very dense and physical in their own cycle, are relatively ethereal as compared with the materiality of our present middle Round. At the expiration of these 300 million years, Nature, on the way to the physical and material, down the arc of descent, begins with mankind and works downwards, hardening or materialising forms as it proceeds’ (SD 2:68fn; see also 2:52).

    The three figures quoted in the SD that need to be reconciled are therefore:
    We also need to explain why the first and third of these figures differ from the figure of 1,972,948,998 years calculated above for the time that has elapsed from the beginning of the present kalpa to 1887.

    The solution to the problem was first presented by Hans Malmstedt in an article entitled ‘Our position in time on globe D’ (The Theosophical Path, October 1933, pp. 226-35; see also July 1931, pp. 63-9).

    The last three digits of the three figures from the SD are: 687, 987, 987. Malmstedt says that the number 687 must be wrong, and that the mistake may have arisen by a compositor turning the 9 upside down to make a 6 while setting up the number 987. HPB used the edition of the calendar for 1884-85 (SD 2:50-1); earlier editions confirm that the 6 should be a 9 (; 1879-80: According to the 1880-81 Telegu edition, 1,955,884,981 years have elapsed since the start of srishti (creation/manifestation), or what HPB calls ‘the beginning of cosmic evolution’. We do not yet know whether the number in the edition that HPB used contained an error since a copy has not yet been located. (Two typographical errors have been identified in the 1880-81 edition.) It is also possible that the number was correct but was copied wrongly.

    The number 1,955,884,981 in the Telegu calendar.

    Top: numbers 1 to 10 in Telegu. Bottom: numbers 0 to 10 in Tamil.
    Both the Telegu numbers for 6 and 9, and the Tamil numbers for 6 and 9 are very similar.

    Malmstedt says that a second minor error was made by both the writers of the Tamil calendar and Pandit Sarasvatī in calculating the time that has elapsed since the start of the kali-yuga. In the SD (1:650) we are told: ‘The Hindus date their Kali Yug from a great periodical conjunction of the planets thirty-one centuries B.C.’ Malmstedt argues that the calculation must have been done in this way: 3100 + 1887 = 4987. But as explained above, it ought to be: 3100 + 1887 - 1 = 4986. (A similar mistake is made at SD 2:69.) The last three figures of each of the three numbers above should therefore be: 986.

    Malmstedt then applies a third and final correction, since the kali-yuga actually began in 3102 BC, not 3100 BC. The calculation is therefore: 3102 + 1887 - 1 = 4988, so that the last three digits of the three numbers should be 988.

    It is worth noting that the 1879-80 edition of the Telugu calendar does not contain these last two errors (nor does the 1880-81 edition, if we make allowance for a single typo). For instance, the number of years that have elapsed from the start of cosmic evolution until (February) 1879 is correctly given as: 1,955,884,980. It is also significant that the Tamil calendar contains a figure for the number of years that have elapsed in ‘Brahman kalpa’: 1,972,948,980 years until 1879. This figure exactly corresponds to the calculation presented at the start of this section (number (4) below).

    If we now add another 113 years so that the numbers under discussion give the years that have elapsed until the year 2000 rather than 1887, they become:
    (1) 1,955,885,101 years
    (2) 1,664,501,101 years
    (3) 1,960,853,101 years
    whereas the number we originally calculated was:
    (4) 1,972,949,101 years.
    All these numbers are essentially correct, as will now be explained.

    Subtracting (1) from (4) gives: 17,064,000 years. What does this number represent? The answer, as Malmstedt points out, is to be found in the ancient Hindu astronomical text, the Sūrya-Siddhānta. Chapter 1, verse 24 reads: ‘47,400 divine years passed while the God Brahmā was employed in creating animate and inanimate things, planets, stars, gods, demons, and the rest.’ Since one divine year equals 360 solar years, 47,400 divine years are equal to 17,064,000 solar years. In other words, the present kalpa on earth began with a period of divine activity lasting 17,064,000 years, and only then did the period of what HPB calls ‘cosmic evolution’ begin.*

    *In the SD (2:68) HPB writes: ‘The esoteric doctrine says that this “cosmic evolution” refers only to our solar system; while exoteric Hinduism makes the figures refer, if we do not mistake, to the whole Universal System.’ However, in the very next footnote she states: ‘The above Brahmanical figures refer to the evolution beginning on Globe A [of the earth planetary chain], and in the First Round.’ (A similar statement is made at BCW 13:301.)

    According to the SD, it took the astral mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms up to man 300,000,000 years to evolve. However, the difference between numbers (1) and (2) is only 291,384,000 years. The solution to this puzzle becomes apparent if we subtract (2) from (4), for we then get: 308,448,000. This is exactly equal to one full manvantara, i.e. one manvantara of 306,720,000 years plus one sandhi period of 1,728,000 years (or a dawn and twilight of 864,000 years each). In other words, the first appearance of ‘humanity’ on earth occurred a whole manvantara of 308,448,000 years after the beginning of the present kalpa, and therefore only 291,384,000 years after the beginning of ‘cosmic evolution’ 17,064,000 years later.

    Finally, subtracting (3) from (4) gives: 12,096,000 years. This is equal to 7 x 1,728,000. In other words, the date given by Sarasvatī is the time that has elapsed since the beginning of the present kalpa, but it excludes the seven sandhis appearing before and after each of the six manvantaras that have so far elapsed.

    In conclusion, according to Hindu chronology, the time that has elapsed from the beginning of the present day of Brahmā up to February 2000 is 1,972,949,101 years (but see Secret cycles, section 5, for a correction to this figure). It should be noted, however, that the Hindu figures for a day of Brahmā and its subdivisions, based on the number 4320, are only approximations, albeit close ones, to the occult figures. HPB comments: ‘not one of the exact numbers will ever be given out, as they pertain to the Mysteries of Initiations and to the Secrets of the occult influence of Numbers’ (BCW 13:306).

    by David Pratt. June 1999. Last updated: April 2019.

    Root-race chronology

    Rounds and manvantaras: an outline

    Geological timescale

    Evolution in the fourth round

    Secret cycles

    The age of earth