The World According to Hinduism

The World

Shiva Drinking the Poison of Earthly Life

by Jayaram V

This essay describes the symbolism, significance and associated beliefs and descriptions of the world according to the tenets of Hinduism.


Ever since human beings appeared upon earth, their concept of the world has been changing. For the primitive people, their world consisted of the area they could explore. Since outside contact was limited, it was indeed a small world, often limited to an island, a savannah or a forest. Primitive people also believed the earth was flat and was surrounded by an ocean, desert or a mountain range. It took thousands of years for humans to emerge out of such primitive and restrictive ideas and venture into the far-reaching corners of the earth to estimate its dimensions.

For a long time, people also believed that the earth was the center of the universe and created by an ancestor, a divine spirit, a father like being or God. Today, we know that the earth is but one of the trillions of planets within our own galaxy, while the number of galaxies within what we think our visible universe runs into trillions. We also have the mathematical possibility that this universe may be just one of the many. Science has diminished our self-importance while presenting to us the astounding dimensions of the universe, proving beyond doubt that we are not very special or important in the scheme of the universe.

However, we and the earth are still unique because we have not yet found life upon any other planet, and even if we may find it in future, it may still prove to be very different from the life that exists here. Besides, the chances of the evolution of another race of humans upon another planet are slim to none. Science has expanded our horizons of knowledge and opened our eyes to the bewildering reality of the universe and its chaotic nature.

In the process, it has also created in us the existential despair that perhaps there is nothing beyond life, and the life of anyone and anything has no apparent or rational purpose or significance in the universal scheme of things. The universe existed for billions of years before life appeared upon earth, and it will continue to exist for billions of years even if earth is evaporated in a cataclysmic celestial event. We can no more think of God as the creator with simple faith and certitude as our ancestors did, without accommodating the scientific theories of the origin of life upon earth.

Triangle Where do we stand in this unfathomable universe with trillions of stars, planets, moons and galaxies?

Rationally speaking, it is a miracle that despite our knowledge and insignificance, and despite the suffering to which we are vulnerable, we are still endowed with unfathomable optimism to remain interested about living, seeking happiness in the crevices of pain and suffering. We live in a hostile world, dogged by the fear of death and the uncertainties of life. Yet, we continue to cherish our dreams and pursue our goals and ideals, despite all the forces that seems to be opposed to our best intentions and endeavors. Our longing for life is stronger than ever.

It is so because we are complex beings, with a wide array of potentials, skills and abilities. We have an innate capacity to learn and adapt and fight against odds. Nature has endowed us with diverse faculties to deal with our circumstances. Hence, in our survival and self-preservation, we are guided not only by reason but also by emotions and beliefs. They give us the purpose to look beyond the apparent reality, and surmise hidden causes and logical possibilities to deal with our problems and make intelligent predictions. Religious beliefs were born out of such an inquiry.

The wise men of ancient India inquired into the nature of the world. They tried to understand it both structurally or physically and spiritually. They also tried to look beyond the apparent reality to find hidden causes of those phenomena which they could not rationally explain, within the boundaries of their own knowledge and worldviews, using intuition and imagination. In this essay, we will explore their understanding of the world in which we live and how they perceived it both physically and metaphysically.

Description of the world

The world in Hinduism goes by many names. The most popular ones and their symbolic significance are stated below.

1. Prapancha: Prapancha (pra+pancha) means that which has manifested, developed, arisen or expanded from the five elements namely fire, earth, water, air and sky. At the physical level, the world is made up of these five elements. They have both subtle and gross forms. Hence, the world has a visible and an invisible aspect. Our knowledge of them arises from the five gross and five subtle senses.

2. Jagat or jagathi: Jagat (ja+gat) means that which has manifested (ja) from the movement (gathi) of the sun, celestial bodies or God himself in his awakened aspect. It is subject to the movement of Time, the Sun, moon, stars, planets, seasons, fate, life, aging, birth, death and so on. Thus, verily it is a product of change and movement (chaitanyam), caused by the force (shakti) of God.

3. Bhuh: The world is known as Bhulok or Prithvi (पृथ्वी or पृथिवी). Bhuh (भू) means the earth or the ground (भूमि). The early Vedic texts refer to a three or a four-tier world. Bhu (the earth), Bhuva (the middle region) and Suva (the heaven). Above them is Maha, the world of Brahman. They also vaguely mention a subterranean world, below the earth, ruled by Yama, the Lord of Dharma (justice). Each of the worlds is predominantly made of a specific element (bhuta). Ours is the world of the earth. The presiding deity of the earth is Bhudevi. In the Hindu pantheon, she is considered the elder sister of Lakshmi.

Triangle The four-tier universe of early Vedic beliefs. Courtesy: PureLifeVision.com

4.Jivalok: Jiva means a living being, also referred to as an embodied self (jivatma). Because the world consists of diverse jivas, it is also known as Jivalokam, in contrast to the world of immortal gods, which is known as devalokam. In some sects of Hinduism, all jivas, including humans, are referred to as pasus (animals) and God as their lord (Pasupathi). Our goal is to realize the Pathi in(God) us transcending the Pashu (animal or ignorant nature) in.

5. Mrtyulok: According to the Vedas, this world is ruled by Death (Kala). He is the devourer with a voracious appetite. All that is here is his food (annam), and as the Bhagavadgita depicts all that happens here is controlled by his inviolable will. Hence, our world is also known as the world of death, where everything is subject to death, destruction and decay. The worlds above ours are immortal worlds (amara lokas). In the world of death, we (jivas) are but offerings in the sacrifice of life.

6. Samsara: Samsara refers to this world and worldly existence. It also refers to the progression or passage of things and beings through successive stages of birth, decay and death. Sa means snake (as in sarpa) and sara means essence. The essence (sara) of this world (symbolized as snake or death) is poison which manifests as impurities, suffering and bondage to the cycle of transmigration. It is the same poison which emerged during the churning of the oceans by gods and demons and which Shiva consumed. We are all filled with it. Hence, unless we remove this poison of mortality from our system, we cannot be immortal.

7. Vishvam: Vishv (विश्व) means all, whole, everything and universal. It is used to refer to both the universe and the world. God as the soul and supporter of the world is known as Visvatma, and Visvambhar (विश्वम्भर), and the earth as the support as Vishvambhara (विश्वम्भरा). The Vedas refer to Vishvadevas, the gods of commonality, believed to be the sons of Vishva. The world is this (iha) and heaven and God are That (Tat or para). Vishva is filled with Vis (objects) which are responsible for our egoism, delusion (moha), attachment and bondage.

8. Viraj: Literally, viraj (विराज्) means beauty, splendor, sovereign, excellent, majestic, etc. Symbolically, it refers to Brahma and his creation, or the world, which is filled with the wonder, splendor or majesty (viraj) of the sun or Brahman. Viraj is also the materially manifested aspect of Brahman as Purusha (the cosmic being) or his creation. In the cosmic hierarchy, he is next to Hiranyagarbha, or Isvara, the cosmic soul. In the microcosm of a living being, it is represented by the body. In philosophical terms, viraj is but the field of Prakriti where souls become embodied and lose their freedom, until they attain liberation.

The nature of the world

The ancient seers of India who lived in forests, practicing austerities also tried to ascertain the purpose and significance of the world. They probed the subtle worlds of their own consciousness to know what role God played in creation, and whether he played any role at all. They were curious to know how important the world was for their material and spiritual wellbeing or their liberation from the constraints it imposed upon them. Living pious lives and removing the impurities that interfered with their perception and understanding, they speculated upon these matters and came out with a diverse range of opinions and beliefs about the world. Their efforts resulted in the emergence of diverse schools (darshanas) of Hindu philosophy. A summary of their important views of the world is presented below.

1. Real: The Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya and Vaisheshika Schools, the Dvaita (dualist) philosophy and some sects of Saivism and Vaishnavism regard the world as real (sat) just as God and the transcendental realms are. They hold that the world exists independent of our minds and perceptions. Truth is that which is in conformity with the reality of the world. It does not change by our thinking, knowledge or perception.

2. Unreal: The Advaita (nondualist) school holds that only Brahman is real and everything is unreal (asat) or an illusion (mithya). The reality is one, indivisible, eternal and indestructible. It is free from duality. Whatever that appears in creation and creation itself arise from Brahman as a temporary formation, projection, superimposition or reflection, which is temporary, impermanent and subject to modifications. Therefore, our world is unreal just as the reflection of the sun in water or the waves in an ocean. Because of the power of Maya, Brahman remains concealed in it although he pervades all. Hence, we cannot perceive him, unless we transcend our minds, desires, attachments, egoism, delusion and ignorance.

3. Impermanent: All schools and texts of Hinduism acknowledge the world as impermanent (anitya) and destructible (vinasi). It is subject to modifications, death and decay, just as our bodies and minds are. The impermanence is a major existential problem and source of suffering as we are constantly subjected to gain and loss due to the association and disassociation from the objects, which we like or dislike due to our desires and attachments. The suffering can be resolved through renunciation and detachment and by establishing the mind in the contemplation of the eternal Self.

4. Impure: Hindu texts consider the world to be impure (asaucha) because it is ruled by Death and subject to Maya. From the perspective of God or Self who are blemishless, both are considered impure phenomena. The mortal world is largely made up of the tattvas and the gunas of Nature, which are also impure and subject to modifications. There may be pure places and objects upon earth, but they exist amidst the impurities of the world just as stars in the darkness of night. The world is made up of material objects (vishayas). They are filled with the poison (visham) of ignorance, delusion, egoism and attachments. Beings are drawn to them due to the delusion that they are the source of honey (sukham or happiness) and become bound, which leads to bondage and suffering.

5. Trap: The world is also considered a trap (जाल jaal), a net or a mire in Hinduism. Individual souls are trapped not only in the bodies but also the world, from which they cannot easily escape, since they are subject to Maya or delusion. God is the universal magician (मायाविन् mayavi) who casts his magical net (mayajaal) to trap them and keep them bound to the world and Nature. Due to attraction and aversion and the activity of the senses, beings are drawn to the world just as insects are drawn to a lamp or a flame. Believing that the world is all and the source of their happiness and fulfillment, they engage in selfish and desire-ridden actions and become burnt by the flames of karma, which lead to their suffering and spiritual downfall. For the same reason, the world is also considered a mire.

6. Bridge or passage: Hindu texts allude to the idea that the earth serves as a bridge for the souls to ascend to higher worlds. Beings of the lower worlds cannot directly enter the sunlit higher worlds. For that they have to take a birth upon earth and practice austerities to purify themselves and propitiate the gods. Earth is also the ideal place for them to invoke the gods through spiritual practices and earn boons from them. The same holds true for gods also. If they want to ascend to higher worlds or enter the world of Brahman, they have to take birth upon earth. Earth is also the only place where God incarnates or manifests his aspects. Thus, despite its inferior status, our world is still important in the order and regularity of the world, for the practice of Dharma and for the progress of individual souls on the spiritual path.

7. Not-self: By definition, not-self (anatma) means that which is not the Self. It represents the alternative reality or the objective reality or the world itself. The Self is the subject, and not-self (or the world) is its object. It includes the mind and body also, since they are a part of Prakriti (Nature) and thereby of the world. Whatever you can perceive or cognize through your mind and senses constitute not-self or the material and perceptual world. In some Upanishads, it is represented by the expression, “neti” or “not this,” which is but a reference to what is not Self. Contemplation upon the not-self helps aspirants to cultivate discernment (buddhi), and thereby realize their essential Nature. Buddhism holds that by mindfully focusing upon it one gains an insight into the nature of suffering and attains peace and Nirvana. According to Hinduism, it is a mere projection of the Self, and by withdrawing form it one becomes absorbed in the Self.

The origin and cosmology of the world

According to the Vedas, the world is created by Brahma who is in turn created by Isvara or the lord of the universe. The Vedas describe that in the beginning there was nothing. All was pervaded by Brahman. Then a cosmic egg (brahmanda) appeared, which gradually differentiated itself into the earth (prithvi), the mid-region (antarikshma, the heaven (dyauh) and all the objects that we perceive. Initial descriptions suggested a four-tier world, but subsequent texts such as the Puranas describe seven upper worlds (lokas) of light and seven lower worlds (talas) of darkness. They are compared to a 14-tier building (bhuvana). The earth is in the middle, as the seventh world from the top.

Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts describe the earth or our world as a part of larger world or universe. The sacred Mount Meru, with seven mountain ranges, is believed to be its center or the hub of the wheel of creation. It is said to be 85 times larger than our world, with is center corresponding to the center of the earth, surrounded further by eight large geographical divisions or continents and eight concentric oceans, each made up of a specific material such as salt, milk, honey, etc. Jambudvipa or the Indian subcontinent, the birthplace of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism) is said to be one of them.

Mount Meru The cosmic tortoise, and Mount Meru by the geographer Thunot Duvotenay (1796-1875)

The Puranas describe the life of the earth as 4.36 billion years, which constitutes a day (kalpa) in the life of Brahma, the creator god. Each Kalpa has four subdivisions called Yugas of varying periods. They are krita (or satya), treta, dvapara and kali yugas. Together they constitute a great epoch (Maha Yuga). Of them the first one is the longest and the last one the shortest. Their combined duration is 4.32 million years. Thus, each Kalpa or Day of Brahma consists of 1000 Maha Yugas. Each Kalpa is also divided into 14 Manvantaras, each of which lasts for about 71 Mahayugas (306.72 million years), presided over by a particular Manu, who is considered the cosmic ruler of the earth and the progenitor of all humans and human races. He is a direct descendant of Brahma. Each Manu goes by a different name and distinct identity and history. It may be noted that the life of the earth or the duration of our world roughly corresponds to the life of the planet as calculated by present day astronomers.

While Manu is the cosmic ruler, the presiding deity of the earth is Bhudevi. In the iconography she is depicted as seated on a platform, supported by four elephants, each representing one of the four directions (dik), with two or four hands, holding different objects. Although she is considered the supporter of all and personification of suffering and endurance, she is not worshipped as widely or popularly as Lakshmi, her elder sister. However, she is propitiated in many ceremonies, especially those which involve the use of land or construction of houses and buildings. The reason Hindus cremate the dead rather than bury them is that the earth is considered an impurity while fire is considered a cleansing agent.

Conclusion

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Hinduism acknowledges the duality or the dual nature of the world. It is pure and impure, real and unreal. Its beings are subject to heat and cold, pain and pleasure, mortality and immortality, knowledge and ignorance, bondage and liberation. Hence, we are advised to maintain a guarded and restrained relationship with it. One should neither totally become involved with it nor remain totally indifferent to it. By following the middle path, pursuing both material and spiritual aims, a devotee has to ideally strive for balance and equanimity in upholding Dharma and fulfilling the obligations.

Hinduism is not a purely heaven centric religion. It advises its followers to keep their feet firmly on the ground, while engaging their minds in the contemplation of transcendental truths to realize their essential nature and return to their original, heavenly abode. The scriptures remind us that despite all the problems, the world is still an important place. It is a bridge which ensures the passage of the souls to other worlds. While liberation is important, beings cannot ignore their obligatory duties and responsibilities or their commitment to moral life and Dharma.

As God’s representatives (Bhagavatas) upon earth, they have to do their part to ensure the order and regularity of the world, while pursuing the ultimate aim of liberation. The world is a trap, a kind of poison, an illusion and a source of perennial suffering, delusion, ignorance and bondage. Yet, it is a divine manifestation, a divinity, which is filled with the splendor of God and acts the source and support for all living beings. It may not be the physical center of the universe, but it plays a central role in the transmigration of souls and their ultimate liberation.

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