God and Creation in Hinduism

The Cosmic Play of Creation

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay examines whether God and Creation are the same or different according to various schools of Hinduism, and how the divine qualities manifest in Nature as described in the tenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita.


Are God and Creation the Same? This is one of the most interesting questions, which led to a number of speculative philosophies in the past. Hinduism is complicated because it accommodates a diversity of opinions on almost everything, letting people draw their own conclusions from a variety of thought processes to satisfy their curiosity or choose their faith. Such diversity and depth of knowledge can confound even inquisitive minds and create a lot of confusion.

People who practice Hinduism and take more than an ordinary interest in its theology, history and philosophy understand the problem and cope with it in their ways. Of late, we are witnessing a growing intolerance among some Hindus, who want to promote certain dogma and discourage others from engaging in the freedom of thought. If we want to keep the spirit of Hinduism alive, we need to keep the freedom of thought alive. The following discussion requires careful attention because it can challenge many assumptions that we have about the nature of the relationship between God and creation.

The Vedas proclaim God to be all pervading, silent, invisible and not entirely knowable or comprehensible. He is a mysterious being who does not fit into any particular definition, name or form. He is neither Vishnu nor Shiva nor Brahma, but all of them and even more. As the Kena Upanishad suggests, even gods have little clue about him or his glory.

If you study the Upanishads and understand the subtle nuances of the many verses in them, which describe or extol Brahman or Atman, you will find that it is difficult to determine whether God is the same as his creation or distinct from it. One of the striking descriptions of Brahman is found in the Isa Upanishad. It begins with the beautiful assertion that all this is inhabited by the Supreme Brahman. Everything that exists here and moving is enveloped by him. It also affirms that he is all pervading (sarva vyapi). He fills everyone and everything like the air or the space upon earth.

The idea that God is hidden in everything and in everyone often leads to the misleading conclusion that everything is God. Can we draw that conclusion? Perhaps not. It is true that God is in everything, but everything is not God. For example, if you are living in a house, it does not mean that you are the house. You may be in someone’s mind as an idea or an image, but by the mere fact of it you are not considered the same as that person. If God and creation are the same, then creation cannot be impure. It must be pure and divine in every aspect. If it is so, the souls need not have to suffer immensely upon earth or escape from here to the immortal world.

We know from the Vedas and Tantras that this is not the case. From them we learn that God is pure, eternal, indestructible and indefinable. Creation is both pure and impure and subject to impermanence and modifications. It has both divine and demonic aspects. Some parts of creation such as the higher worlds are brighter and divine, and some such as the lower worlds are darker and demonic.

Does that mean God is not equally present in creation? Is he partially present or absent in some? It cannot be because he equally pervades everything, without any preference, likes or dislikes. Then, from where is the diversity coming? Who is causing it? How is it that some aspects of creation are more divine and worthy of veneration, and some need to be avoided for our own good? To understand this conundrum, we need to examine the relationship between God and Nature, God and creation, and cause and effect. Let us examine them in some detail.

God and Nature

Our scriptures primarily speak of two essential and eternal realities of existence (sat), God (Purusha) and Nature (Prakriti). In Hinduism, there is no unanimity among scholars about their relationship. Are they the same or different? Is there any relationship between them at all? If so, what type of relationship is it? If we can satisfactorily find answers to these questions, we can also answer whether God is the same as creation. Unfortunately, the task is not as simple as it appears to be. The schools of Hinduism offer the following alternative explanations.

  1. God and Nature are the same. Nature is an integral and dependent aspect of God. God is active and the cause of all creation.
  2. God and Nature are different and independent. However, Nature obeys the will of God and manifests creation.
  3. God and Nature are different. Nature is not only independent but also has a will of its own. God is passive and takes no part in creation.
  4. God does not exist. There is no creator. Only Nature exists. The worlds, things and beings come into existence due to cause and effect and the aggregation of matter and components of Nature.

According to the first school of thought, Nature is a dependent aspect of God. God is the source of all including Nature. As the efficient and material cause, he creates all the worlds and beings out of his own Nature and envelops them in the web of Maya. He is also responsible for the preservation and destruction of the world.

According to the second school, Primal Nature (Adi Shakti) and God are independent and eternal realities. They do not depend upon each other but in the beginning of of creation Nature becomes activated by the will of God. Hence, God is the efficient cause, and Nature is the material cause. Nature manifests things and beings, while God remains as the passive witness and the ultimate enjoyer. At the end of creation both fall into sleep.

According to the third school God and Nature are two distinct, independent and eternal realities. God is passive, while Nature is active. Nature manifests all creation by her own will, in which God participates as a mere witness. This view is mostly represented by the various subsects of Shaktism, who venerate Mother Goddess as the source and the highest of all.

The fourth school is represented by atheistic, agnostic and materialistic traditions such as Samkhya Yoga. They believe in individual souls and Nature or objective reality (not-Self) rather than God or the universal Self. The materialists (Lokayatas) did not even acknowledge the existence of souls or transmigration. They believed that there was no God, no afterlife, and death was the final liberation.

The first view is mostly held by the theistic traditions of Hinduism such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism, which emphasize the importance of devotion to God. The Bhagavadgita holds a similar view. It speaks of Nature as a dependent reality of Brahman. Brahman is both material and efficient cause. However, they are not the same. Nature is in Brahman, but Brahman is not in Nature. They are distinct. It is confirmed when Lord Krishna declares (7.12) that all living beings who contain the triple modes of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas exist in him but he is not in them. He further states that Eightfold division of Nature, consisting of the earth, water, fire, air, mind, intelligence and ego, constitutes is inferior (apara), compared to his true nature, which is superior (para). While Nature is the source of all beings and materiality, God is the ultimate source of the creation and dissolution of all.

Cause and effect

To understand the relationship or the duality (if any) between God and Nature and between God and Creation, we also need to understand the equation between cause and effect. Ancient Hindu philosophers pondered over whether the cause and effect in manifestation were the same or different without reaching any definitive conclusion.

We know that behind every effect there is a cause, and that cause may in turn be the effect another cause. Ancient Indian philosophers and theologians speculated upon not only whether there was any cause of all causes and whether it had any correlation or substantial connection with the effects it produced. For example, is the flower the same as the tree? Is a tree same as the mother tree from which it originated? Is a son the same as his father or mother? Are brothers and sisters the same because they are all born from the same parents?

In Hinduism, we have both arguments. According to one line of thought, the cause and effect are the same because the cause undergoes transformation to become an effect. The same cause may produce numerous effects. Each effect is an altered state of its cause. Accordingly, the cause is always hidden in the effect which it produces, and the effect is always hidden in the cause from which it arises.

In other words, no duality exists between cause and effect. They represent the same reality, separated by time and place. The apparent difference is just an illusion, which is temporary. This is true whether the cause produces the effect by itself or joins with other causes to produce a cumulative effect. As long as the cause exists in any form, the potential for the effect to manifest exist. In some cases, it is even difficult to separate the two.

According to a counter argument, the cause and effect are not the same. The cause produces the illusion of effect, while it remains the same. This may happen through either projection or reflection or super imposition. The causes are thus not the same as their effects. They represent two distinct realities. For example, the reflection of the sun in water is not the Sun. It is just a temporary reflection. The person is not the same as the reflection in the mirror. The movie that appears on the screen is not the same as the film or the projector which projects it. The body or the being is either a superimposition upon the Self or a projection of the Self. Hence, they are but two distinct realities that coexist without any connection.

The Nyaya Vaisheshika schools hold the third opinion, which is different from both. According to this school cause and effect are different from the onset. Effects cannot be hidden in the causes because they do not exist at all prior to their manifestation. Every manifestation (effect) is new. When numerous causes produce a cumulative effect, the causes may be concurrent but the effect is wholly new and different. Further, the whole is not the same as the parts. Thus, this school went to the extreme to hold the pluralistic view of creation.

God and creation

The correlation between cause and effect is important to understand the correlation between God and creation. Secondly, we also need to ascertain who the cause of creation is, whether it is God, Nature or both. Considering the two factors, we can think of the following possibilities regarding their relationship.

1. If God is the efficient and material cause of creation, if Nature is a dependent aspect of him and acts under his will and if we consider that the effect is an altered state of its cause, it follows that creation is an aspect or altered state of God and both represent the two states of the same ultimate reality.

2. If God is the efficient and material cause of creation, if Nature is a dependent aspect of him and acts under his will and if cause and effect are not the same, we may conclude that God and creation not the same. Creation may exist in God and depend upon him, but he does not exist in it.

3. If God is the efficient cause and Nature is the material cause, if both are independent, distinct and eternal and if Nature exercises its own will, we may safely assume that creation is different from God, irrespective of whether cause and effect are the same or distinct and irrespective of the process by which creation happens.

The predominant view is that Creation is different from God. God exists in creation as the all pervading supreme Being. He is in everyone and everything as a distinct supreme reality (apara). However, He is not an essential or integral part of it. He remains detached, impervious and untainted by the effects and modifications that arise in the field of Nature.

The soul and the body

The correlation between the soul and the body is another important criterion to determine the relationship between God and Creation. If God is the soul of the universe, the material universe which represents his creation and beingness is his body. We can extend the same analogy to jivas or embodied souls. Pure consciousness represents the soul. Everything that surrounds it or envelops it (the mind, senses, intelligence and ego) represents the body.

They are distinct realities like the earth and the sky, which never unite. The soul is in the body, but the body is not in the soul. Hence, the soul is not affected by what happens to the body. The body depends upon the soul. It perishes when the soul leaves it. The soul is immutable, indestructible and eternal. Nothing can touch it, taint it, alter it or destroy it. It is not the material cause of the body. However, its presence in the tattvas of Nature is necessary for the body to manifest.

Hinduism extends the analogy of the body and soul to the entire creation and to the relationship between God and Nature and God and creation. The supreme Being is the soul and the lord (Isvara) of creation. The Supreme Being (Isvara) himself is a reflection of Brahman (Parameswara) in the field of Nature. All the individual souls cumulatively represent the pure consciousness of Isvara, while the whole universe along with the entire creation represent his material body.

Divine and demonic qualities

When we extend the analogy of the body and soul to the entire creation, it becomes obvious that God and creation are not the same. They represent distinct realities. God is transcendental, and creation is immanent. God is the cause, and creation is the effect. Creation exists in him, but he does not exist in them in the sense that he is not an essential part of them. Therefore, whatever happens in creation does not affect God. He remains untouched and untainted by the modifications of Nature, just as he remains immutable and incorruptible in the body of a living being.

When we accept these assumptions as true, we have to grapple with other problems. The first one is, if God is not in creation or not an integral part of creation, whether creation is completely devoid of divine nature. Secondly, if God does not participate in creation but remains a passive witness, does it mean that as the product of Nature whether creation is completely evil and impure, without any divinity?

Our theories of cosmology indicate that creation is not entirely dark or an impure entity. Only parts of it are filled with sunless worlds. In creation you will find sunlit words, sunless worlds and mixed worlds. As we find in the tenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita, God represents numerous aspects of creation. For example, he represents all the divine qualities, seers and sages, the best and the purest of all things, sacred rivers, mountains, numerous gods and goddesses and so on. If God is not creation as declared in the Bhagavadgita (7.12), how is it possible that he even represents some aspects of it?

It is true that creation is filled with the impurities of Nature, whereby whatever that manifests in it is subject to impermanence and the influence of the triple gunas namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. However, although God does not participate in it and is not the cause of it, it is still suffused with his presence or his light, just as the sunlight that pervades the earth although the Sun itself is far away from it and is not a part of it. Just as the intensity of its light varies from place to place and time to time, the intensity of God’s presence determines whether a thing is divine or not.

God willfully does not do anything. He equally pervades everything in creation. However, what determines the purity or sanctity of a place, or an object, is the presence or absence of impurities. Where the impurities of Nature are less, there the divine shines. Where they are more, darkness prevails. Thus, depending upon the presence or absence of Nature’s impurities, some aspects of his creation are brighter and divine and some are darker and demonic.

Nirguna Brahman is without qualities, but the gods who manifest from him, including Isvara, possess divine qualities. The same qualities also manifest in creation wherever Nature’s impurities are absent. For example, strength, beauty, perfection, symmetry, excellence, purity, happiness, pleasure, lightness, brightness, courage, humility, compassion, charity, honesty, etc., are considered divine qualities because they arise from the pervading presence of God in creation.

These qualities manifest when the impurities of Nature are absent. When the impurities are present, his light becomes covered by the darkness of the gunas, resulting in the predominance of demonic qualities such as pride, anger, envy, greed, fear, weakness, negligence, slothfulness, etc. God is always pure. So is the soul. In creation, they become enveloped by the impurities of Nature. In case of human beings, they can achieve liberation only when they cleanse themselves of all the impurities present in them and let the soul shine in its pristine glory.

Conclusion

Thus, in Hinduism there is no unanimity about the relationship between God and creation. Most schools agree that God is the cause, and creation is the effect. However, they disagree about the way it happens. The relationship between God and creation cannot be ascertained unless we know the correlation between cause and effect and between God and Nature. In both cases, we do not have definite answers.

The question is further complicated by the fact that God himself is an indeterminate reality. He is both the manifested and the unmanifested, known and unknown, and with and without qualities, names and forms. Even the Vedas are not sure whether he is responsible for creation or not. Some hymns suggest that the mortal world was created by Purusha, the Cosmic Being, out of himself by sacrificing his own body. That Purusha manifested from Brahman in the beginning of creation. We are not sure what existed before him.

The predominant belief is that God and Creation represent two distinct realities. God is real. Creation is an illusion or a temporary formation or projection. They are not the same. God pervades creation but is not in it, nor is he touched by it. He remains impervious to all the modifications that arise in the field of Nature. However, as the support and upholder, he ensures the orderly progression of creation. If certain areas in creation become filled with too much darkness, he directly intervenes and destroys evil to restore balance in them.

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