Friday, 2 September 2011

What is the story of creation in Hinduism according to the Vedas?

There is no one Hindu creation story. Numerous cosmogonies can be found in almost all of the important Hindu scriptures. A Hindu maxim states that “Truth is One; the sages call it by different names” (Rig Veda 1:164:46). This axiom helps to explain how it is possible for Hindus to simultaneously embrace so many different versions of creation. Hindus tend to see metaphors in these creation myths for philosophical and spiritual truths. The Encyclopedia of Religion article on Cosmogony classifies cosmogonic myths into six categories.2 Within the Hindu tradition, there are creation stories that fall under each of those categories. Of all of the ways that one may conceive of universal origins, the Hindu mind has entertained them all.

One of the most sublime accounts of creation occurs in the Rig Veda 10:129. It ponders the mystery of origins and offers more questions than answers.

Who really knows, and who can swear,
How creation came, when or where!
Even gods came after creation’s day,
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start?
Did He do it? Or did He not?
Only He, up there, knows, maybe;
Or perhaps, not even He.3

To find such an admission of ignorance in an ancient religious text is somewhat shocking. This well-known hymn has set a precedent for open-mindedness toward theories of the universe’s origins, whether they are set forth by other religions or by scientists. The many other creation stories in the Hindu tradition may be seen as metaphors which convey, not absolute truth, but practical paradigms for conceiving of one’s purpose in life and one’s connection to the universe and other life forms within it.

One hymn4 from the Rig Veda tells how the universe was created from the cosmic being, Purusha, who is described as having a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, and a thousand feet. From Purusha’s mouth, arms, thighs, and feet came the four classes of Hindu society respectively. It is easy to see how this is a metaphor describing the various social duties of the different classes. Each one has a prescribed place in the universal order and the imagery of the Cosmic Man serves to give the society a common vision of the social structure.

The Chandogya Upanishad 3:19:1-4 relates how the world was nonexistent, became existent, and then became an egg. After a year, the egg broke open and a silver part and a gold part emerged. The silver part became the earth and the golden part became the sky. The various parts of the egg became the features of the heavens and earth. The sun, which in this myth is equated with Brahman, was born from the egg along with all beings who arose. In this myth, there is no explanation of what caused the egg to form, and there does not seem to be any conscious entity who caused it to come about. It seems to have just happened. Many see in this an analogy to the Big Bang. In the egg was contained all of the elements that would become the matter of the universe, and it seems to come about quite on its own, without a conscious will desiring it to happen.

In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad the primordial being, after realizing he was alone, created a woman from his body. From their union humans were born. After this the woman hid from the man by taking the form of a cow. But he came as a bull and from their union, cattle were born. She then hid as a mare, but he came as a stallion, and from that union, all one-hoofed animals were born. This went on for each of the various animals for which there is a male and female, down to the ants. Verse I:4:5 says, “He knew, I indeed am this creation for I produced all this. Therefore, he became the creation. He who knows this as such comes to be in that creation of his.”5 This cosmogony illustrates the idea that all creatures, from humans down to tiny insects, come from the same source. Even more, all share the divinity of their creator. God pervades creation. This is a fundamental Hindu belief. It may even be more appropriate to refer to the universe as a projection of the Supreme than as a creation.

In some myths, creation is said to come from being, and in others, from non-being. The Chandogya Upanishad itself describes creation in both of these ways. Both beliefs are perfectly Hindu. The Westerner may look at this and feel confounded or frustrated. “Which way is it?” he may ask, “It can’t be both ways! A divine revelation should have it only one way.” Of course, the Bible also gives more than one account of creation, but many Christians are inclined to deny this, whereas Hindus would more readily acknowledge variations in the accounts of origins in their tradition. The Hindu might be said to allow a certain amount of cognitive dissonance on these issues, but this is perhaps because the scriptures are not too concerned with putting forth a scientific theory. Rather, they offer multiple ways of viewing the cosmos in order to provide conceptual frameworks. In reality, as the Rig Veda says, “Who really knows, and who can swear, how creation came, when or where!”

In a sense, we decide the meaning and purpose of our lives. It may be that meaning and purpose are not inherent in the universe. If that is the case, it does not mean that we cannot imbue our lives with the meanings we choose. The cosmogonies are a way of illustrating a particular purpose, a way of conceptualizing a culture’s goals and the means to a fulfilled life. A case in point is the creation stories which involve a primordial sacrifice. Sacrifice was a fundamental aspect of Hindu society in Vedic times, and it remains so in some form to this day. Making offerings to the deities, and/or to the ancestors is so essential to life as it is conceived by most Hindus, that it is only natural to think about beginnings in terms of a sacrifice.

Shiva, the destroyer god, prepares the way for creation by removing the old and useless elements. Destruction is necessary for creation, and death is necessary for rebirth. This is the Indian view of sacrifice – that killing is necessary for the sustenance of physical life. We live by consuming other life forms, and the decaying life fertilizes the soil for new life. Everything is in constant transition from one form or stage to another. Death gives way to life. This is one explanation of the Hindu view that the world begins by a great sacrifice. Also illustrating this idea is that life begins from a destructive flood.6

Other Hindu creation stories tell of how the world is created from a primeval sea, a primeval ocean of milk, through tapas (asceticism), through the thought of the unborn Brahman, the dream of Vishnu, and through sound.7 In all of these creation stories, a literal interpretation would entirely miss the intended point. The value of the stories should not be judged by determining how much they are in agreement or conflict with modern scientific theories, but on how well they depict a vision for living a productive, spiritual, and satisfactory life.

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