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The Hindu Theories of Creation




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by Jayaram V

The development of early Hindu theories of creation coincided more or less with the evolution of religious thought in Vedic India. In the early Vedic hymns we see descriptions of Aditi as the universal mother or mother goddess. She gave birth to all the gods who in turn shaped or carved the world. The gods were like carpenters or blacksmiths who forged and carved the worlds and their beings. In the later Vedic hymns we notice a shift from the concrete to the abstract and find descriptions of an absolute self or an infinite being as the efficient and material cause of all creation. This evolutionary development in the Vedic thought happened over a long period of time.

The early Vedic people lived in very challenging circumstances. They invoked gods for help and protection and were preoccupied more with the problems of survival rather than with such philosophical speculation as to who created the gods or how the gods and the world came into existence. The early Rigvedic hymns, therefore, were mostly ceremonial invocations addressed to various gods and goddesses seeking their help or protection. In the later Rigvedic hymns we can see a more philosophical enquiry, which is reflected more prominently in the Upanishads, where we find human thought soaring to great heights. This new development coincided with the establishment of permanent settlements by the Vedic people and probably their coming into contact with diverse religious beliefs and practices of other tribes living in the same area. 

In the early Rigvedic hymns Aditi is described as the mother goddess and mother of gods like Agni, Mitra, Indra, Aryaman and Varuna and the Adityas whose number range from six to twelve. Some of the hymns also refer to a father god. In the last Mandala of the Rigveda, for example, we come across this beautiful hymn on the creation of gods which proclaim Brahmanaspati as the creator of all gods and Aditi as their mother. 

1. LET US with tuneful skill proclaim these generations of the Gods, That one may see them when these hymns are chanted in a future age.
2 These Brahmanaspati produced with blast and smelting, like a Smith, Existence, in an earlier age of Gods, from Non-existence sprang.
3 Existence, in the earliest age of Gods, from Non-existence sprang. Thereafter were the regions born. This sprang from the Productive Power.
4 Earth sprang from the Productive Power the regions from the earth were born. Daksa was born of Aditi, and Aditi was Daksa's Child.
5 For Aditi, O Daksa, she who is thy Daughter, was brought forth. After her were the blessed Gods born sharers of immortal life.
6 When ye, O Gods, in yonder deep close clasping one another stood, Thence, as of dancers, from your feet a thickening cloud of dust arose.
7 When, O ye Gods, like Yatis, ye caused all existing things to grow, Then ye brought Surya forward who was lying hidden in the sea.
8 Eight are the Sons of Aditi who from her body sprang to life. With seven she went to meet the Gods she cast Martanda far away.
9 So with her Seven Sons Aditi went forth to meet the earlier age. She brought Martanda thitherward to spring to life and die again.

This verse describes that existence sprang from non-existence. From existence came regions, earth and Aditi. Aditi has an interesting relationship with Daskha. Aditi in her aspect as mother gave birth to Daksha and from Daksha she was born again as a daughter. This relationship between Daksha and Aditi has some similarity with the one between Brahma and Sarasvathi who is both a daughter and wife of the former. From Aditi all the gods were born. Then gods brought forth Surya the sun god who was hiding in the waters (sea). Aditi brought forth eight Adityas (solar deities) of which she cast Martanda far away and subjected him to birth and death.  It is believed that these eight suns will shine together at the time of dissolution of the worlds.

The Purusha-sukta, which is described as a hymn of creation, is found in the Rigveda. It describes how creation manifested through Purusha, the primeval god and how worlds and beings manifested through him. The Purusha was immortal, mighty and infinite. All the creatures are one fourth of him and the rest of his body is spread in the heavens. From him came Viraj, the Vedas, men and creatures, all the deities, rishis, birds, animals, horses and cattle, sheep and goat. The four different castes came out of the different parts of his body. So were the earth, the mid region, the sun and the moon and the heavens.

1. A THOUSAND heads hath Purusa, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.
2 This Purusa is all that yet hath been and all that is to be; The Lord of Immortality which waxes greater still by food.
3 So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Purusa. All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.
4 With three-fourths Purusa went up: one fourth of him again was here. Thence he strode out to every side over what casts not and what casts.
5 From him Viraj was born; again Purusa from Viraj was born. As soon as he was born he spread eastward and westward o'er the earth.
6 When Gods prepared the sacrifice with Purusa as their offering, Its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood.
7 They balmed as victim on the grass Purusa born in earliest time. With him the Deities and all Sadhyas and Rsis sacrificed.
8 From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up. He formed the creatures of-the air, and animals both wild and tame.
9 From that great general sacrifice Rcas and Sama-hymns were born: Therefrom were spells and charms produced; the Yajus had its birth from it.
10 From it were horses born, from it all cattle with two rows of teeth: From it were generated kine, from it the goats and sheep were born.
11 When they divided Purusa how many portions did they make? What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
12 The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made. His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced.
13 The Moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the Sun had birth; Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vayu from his breath.
14 Forth from his navel came mid-air the sky was fashioned from his head Earth from his feet, and from his car the regions. Thus they formed the worlds.
15 Seven fencing-sticks had he, thrice seven layers of fuel were prepared, When the Gods, offering sacrifice, bound, as their victim, Purusa.
16 Gods, sacrificing, sacrificed the victim these were the earliest holy ordinances. The Mighty Ones attained the height of heaven, there where the Sidhyas, Gods of old, are dwelling.

In the following Rigvedic hymn we hear for the first time the creation of the worlds emerging from Hiranyagarbha, the primeval egg. 

1. IN the beginning rose Hiranyagarbha, born Only Lord of all created beings. He fixed and holdeth up this earth and heaven. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
2 Giver of vital breath, of power and vigour, he whose commandments all the Gods acknowledge. The Lord of death, whose shade is life immortal. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
3 Who by his grandeur hath become Sole Ruler of all the moving world that breathes and slumbers; He who is Loord of men and Lord of cattle. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
4 His, through his might, are these snow-covered mountains, and men call sea and Rasa his possession: His arms are these, his are these heavenly regions. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
5 By him the heavens are strong and earth is steadfast, by him light's realm and sky-vault are supported: By him the regions in mid-air were measured. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
6 To him, supported by his help, two armies embattled look while trembling in their spirit, When over them the risen Sun is shining. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
7 What time the mighty waters came, containing the universal germ, producing Agni, Thence sprang the Gods' one spirit into being. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
8 He in his might surveyed the floods containing productive force and generating Worship. He is the God of gods, and none beside him. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
9 Never may he harm us who is earth's Begetter, nor he whose laws are sure, the heavens' Creator, He who brought forth the great and lucid waters. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
10 Prajapati! thou only comprehends all these created things, and none beside thee. Grant us our hearts' desire when we invoke thee: may we have store of riches in possession.

In this verse, the mighty germ, Hiranyagarbha, created not Brahma but Agni and then other divinities. The last few lines of the hymns clarify Brahma or Prajapathi as Hiranaygarbha or  the creator of all gods and heaven. This is in line with the early Vedic thought of Brahma as the creator. In the later Vedic period, Brahma was replaced by Lord Vishnu as the Hiranyagarbha while followers of Lord Siva considered him to be the creator. Brahma, who lost his status as the highest god, retained his function as a creator and became one of the Trinity of gods.

In some of the later Rigvedic hymns we find a significant departure from the earlier notions of creation. In the following hymn, for the first time, we find a clear reference to an absolute or infinite being as the source of creation. 

1. THEN was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
2 Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day's and night's divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.
3 Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.
4 Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit. Sages who searched with their heart's thought discovered the existent's kinship in the non-existent.
5 Transversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it? There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder
6 Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world's production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
7 He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it, Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

The hymn tries to presents a visual picture of the beginning of all beginnings, when there was nothing whatsoever, neither existence nor non-existence and how from that  great void of indiscriminate chaos came existence with desire as the primal seed. It represents the beginning of all subsequent Hindu thought regarding creation proposed in various sects of Hinduism and schools of Hindu philosophy. It presents an imagery of the beginnings of creation that is at once honest, timeless, grandiloquent and unparalleled in any other religion that we know so far.

The creator is described in the hymn as "That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature." It conveys the indefinable nature of the creator. In essence "That being" is the same as the Brahman of the Upanishads. Non existence and existence refer to  the distinction between Saguana Brahman (Brahman with qualities) and Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without qualities) and also the birth of worlds and beings from an unfathomable void.  

Theories of Creation

Most schools and sects of Hinduism follow one of the following three predominantly popular Hindu theories of creation to explain the origin and creation of our worlds and the beings and objects that inhabit them.

1. God is the creator. He is either the efficient cause or the material cause of creation or both. He creates the worlds  out of himself. He creates his own energy or primeval matter (mula-prakriti). Differentiating himself into innumerable souls and differentiating the primeval matter into various elements (tattvas) and by establishing the souls in them he manifests the worlds and their beings. Maya, which is one of the tattvas of prakriti, clouds their true consciousness and makes them behave like limited beings separate from God and the rest of the creation. When the individual souls overcome maya and realize their true nature, they return to God and merge into him. This approach is accepted by the followers of monism (advaita) and with some modifications by the followers of qualified monism (vishishtadvaita).

2. God is the creator. But He neither creates the individual souls nor the the primeval matter. They preexist and like God they are also eternal. When God initiates the creative cycle prakriti brings forth various tattvas. Once activated, Prakriti takes over most of the creative process. The souls unite with the elements and qualities of prakriti and manifest themselves as limited purushas or jivasMaya clouds their true consciousness and make them act and behave like limited and ignorant beings. When they overcome their illusion and realize their true nature, they return to their original state and exist eternally. They would never merge with God. They will continue to exist as separate souls eternally even after the dissolution of the worlds at the end of the creative cycle. This theory of creation is accepted by the followers of dualism (dvaita) and with some modifications by other schools of dualism.

3. According to the third approach, there is no God. There is no absolute cause of the creation. Individual beings or purushas and primeval matter (prakriti) exist eternally. The individual beings join the primeval matter and become subject to the laws of nature. Maya which is an aspect of Prakriti deludes their nature and subjects them to the cycle of births and deaths. When the individual soul overcomes its ignorance or illusion and realizes its true nature it regains freedom and exists eternally in a state of freedom. This view is accepted by followers of the atheistic schools such as Samkhya, Vaiseshika and also by Buddhism and Jainism. The Purva Mimansa school goes one step further and asserts the static nature of universe, that it has always been the same and that at no time the world is otherwise than it is 1

Among the schools that accept God as the ultimate source of creation, God is named differently as Brahman (Vedanta), Paramatman (Nyaya), Sadasiva (Saivism), Mahavishnu (Vaishnavism) and Mahashakti (Shaktism).

The Puranas

The Puranas, which are books of ancient genealogies and religious history of several gods and goddesses, contain stories of creation in a narrative form. Though they agree in general with the basic processes of creation described above, the Puranas identify a particular god or goddess as the initiator of creation and proceed there from to explain the manifestation of different aspects of visible and invisible worlds and their beings through that source. Thus we have Puranas which consider Lord Vishnu as the creator, some which consider Lord Siva as the creator and some which consider Shakti as the creator. 

In the first version, Lord Vishnu wakes from his eternal sleep and rests on the waters. From his navel arises Brahma who initiates the process of creation. At the end of creation, Vishnu brings forth Rudra who destroys the worlds and brings the creative cycle to an end. 

In the second version, Lord Siva is the supreme self. He manifests himself in five forms: creator, preserver, destroyer, concealer and bestower of grace. He brings forth individual jivas. He awakens his dynamic power of Prakriti which divides itself into several tattvas or principles. United with these tattvas or elements of Prakriti, the individual jivas become subject to the three impurities: egoism or atomicity (anava), binding action (karma) and illusion (maya). Caught in samsara, they undergo births and deaths, till they realize their true nature through the grace of Siva

In the third version, Shakti is the mother of all worlds. Both real and unreal, she is the supreme source who creates the universe, preserves and destroys the worlds she creates and in the end resolves all creation into herself. God, the supreme Siva, by himself is passive and inactive. United by Shakti, he remains in the beings as an onlooker or witness consciousness.

Followers of Shakti do not accept either Vishnu or Brahma as the cause of the manifestation. According to them if Brahma said to have arisen from the navel of Vishnu and Vishnu himself rests on a thousand hooded serpent which in turn rests on waters, Vishnu cannot be the highest supreme self because he, the serpent and the waters need another support to stay in place and that supporter of all is Shakti whose sattvic form is Maha Laskhmi, whose rajasic form is Maha Saraswathi and whose tamasic form is Maha Kali. Manifestation of these three powers is known as sarga (creation). These three powers then resolve into Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesa for the purpose of creation, preservation and dissolution od the universe. And this is called pratisarga (secondary creation)2 .

Theory of Evolution and Involution

It is believed that the process of creation is cyclical and happens in two phases. The first phase is the phase of evolution in which the soul consciousness descends or expands first into subtle matter or subtle energy and then into gross matter or gross energy. Once the soul consciousness enters into gross physical bodies, the second phase begins, which is called the phase of involution. In this phase the soul gradually withdraws from the gross physical body into the inner subtle bodies and finally into itself. 

At the individual level, the first phase usually involves the jivas or beings getting caught in the web of samsara (phenomenal world) and developing attachment with the sense objects through the play of the triple gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) and the activity of the senses. In the second phase the jivas develop detachment, withdraw their senses into their minds and their minds into their subtle planes and inner states of consciousness through yoga and other contemplative processes  and finally experience oneness with their true consciousness in a state of samadhi. 

The same process happens at the macrocosmic level also. In the first process, Brahman expands outwardly set in process by the sound of AUM and in the next withdraws into Himself to become one indivisible silence and nothingness. It is interesting to note that, if we set aside the consciousness aspect of Brahman (Purusha) and focus only on the physical or material or energy aspect of the universe (Prakriti), the modern scientific theories of creation and dissolution of the physical universe more or less agree with the Hindu theory of evolution and involution. 

According to the big bang theory, the universe existed in the beginning as a primeval matter floating in the void (non-existence) of the universe in the form of an egg (Hiranyagarbha). By some process of gravitational pressure it exploded probably with an incredible sound into galaxies, stars, planetary bodies, gaseous substances, infrared radiation, individual molecules and other cosmic energies.  The initial thrust given by the big bang continues till date and the universe is in a state of expansion. One day this phase of expansion of the universe will come to an end and the universe will start withdrawing into itself to become a big blackhole suspended somewhere in the form of an egg. With that one cycle of creation, expansion and dissolution of the universe comes to an end.

Suggested Further Reading

 

Footnotes

1. na kadachit anidrsam jagat

2.Devi Bhagavatam Chapter 2

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