Vedic Cosmogony: Skepticism, Puruṣa and Hiraṇyagarbha

When one looks at the early creation myths, i.e. mythos, of the Indo-Aryans[2], what we today call Hinduism, one is confronted with the fact that their early mythology was not so clearly codified or synthesized as its sister cultures in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and certainly not as well codified and standardized as the mythology and cosmogony of the Greeks and Romans.  One’s initial reaction to this fact from a Western point of view is that it is somewhat odd, especially given that the extant Sanskrit literature from antiquity is fairly extensive.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that the creation mythos of the Hindus, and mythology and legend in general, was and is a very important facet of Hindu theology.  The Bhagavad Gītā and Mahābhārata for example, two of the greatest epics of antiquity that rival the works of Homer and Hesiod from the Western tradition, are still widely read and greatly influence Indian society even today.

Indo-Aryan creation stories however, Hindu theogony as it were, can be found in some of the ancient Sanskrit works, and while these narratives do not represent the core of the theology of the Hindus, like Genesis to the Judeo-Christian tradition or Hesiod’s Theogony and Ovid’s Metamorphoses to the Greco-Romans, Hindu mythology and theology, theo-philosophy, does in fact rest on these cosmological narratives just as the other major theological traditions from Eurasian antiquity.  We can find allusions and references to this creation mythos of the Indo-Aryans, the ancestors of the modern Hindus, in several of the works from antiquity that are still extant and in wide circulation even today – namely the Rigvéda, The Laws of Manu and the Purāṇas.  While each of these works serves a different purpose, spanning from theology to mythology to socio-political philosophy, how the world was created and what its basic underlying principles are, were of utmost importance to the compilers and authors of these ancient traditions.

This view of theogony as an ancillary aspect of theo-philosophical thought is characteristically “Eastern”, distinctive to Vedic/Hindu literary tradition as well as the ancient Chinese literary tradition, and is juxtaposed with what we are used to seeing in the West – like for example what we see in the Greco-Roman tradition where we find mythological lore encapsulated in single (poetic) work like that of Hesiod’s Theogony or Ovid’s Metamorphoses), as well as what we find in the Judeo-Christian (and by inheritance the Islamic) theological tradition where the story of creation as told by Moses in Genesis is held in such high regard.

When trying to understand the meaning and later interpretations of some of these ancient Vedic texts however, texts which included not just philosophical material but mythological material and details on ritual and sacrifice as well, it is critical to have some sense of context – culturally and socio-politically – to try and comprehend the true meaning and import of these creation narratives and how they influenced the development of this rich and lasting philosophical tradition that is the legacy of the Indo-Aryan – namely Vedānta and Yoga which are the primary theo-philosophical systems underlying Hinduism.

The civilization from which Hinduism emerged is traditionally associated with the Indus Valley region, a river system from which an ancient culture could grow crops and thrive, a similar relationship to the Sumerians and their Tigris-Euphrates, the Egyptians and their Nile and the ancient Chinese and the Yellow River.  This relationship with water and its fundamental existence and prerequisite feature for the source of life is reflected throughout the Vedas, and in the Rigvéda in particular, and is a marked characteristic of their cosmogony and creation mythos as is true of all of these ancient civilizations.

This ancient Indus Valley civilization spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from c. 3300 to 1300 BCE, roughly aligning with the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization.  The Rigvéda is one of the primary source texts that provide us insight into the life and culture of the people of the ancient Indus Valley and is one of the oldest extant texts in the Indo-European language family.  It is thought to been composed somewhere in the middle of the second millennium BCE, give or take a few centuries, while it – like all ancient texts – clearly reflects traditions and belief systems that date back much further in antiquity.

The ancient Indo-Aryan civilization was distinct from other ancient civilizations in that very early on in the civilization, society was divided to ensure separation between theology (religion) and social authority or royalty to a large extent, a social stratification system based upon birth and “caste” which persisted up until modern times actually.  Within the caste system the knowledge of the Vedas which effectively represented their religious beliefs, was kept by the Brahmins, a distinct social class from the Kshatriyas or warrior (ruling) class.  This social stratification while from modern eyes may look unjust or unfair, from an ancient history perspective it allowed for a persistent and well documented theological doctrine to be compiled and preserved for millennia, systems of belief and rites and rituals that are documented in the Vedas.

So while the Brahmins historically performed a socio-political function, as was true for most priestly classes in antiquity (the Magi of the Persians or the Egyptian priests for example), they were also responsible for – after proper training and tutelage – the preservation of the arts and knowledge of the Vedas, i.e. for performing the sacred rituals, rites and practices of the ancient Indo-Aryan society and for safeguarding the highest and penultimate teaching of the Vedas, i.e. the nature of the individual Soul, or Ātman, and its relationship to the Cosmic Soul, or Brahman, the transcendent and all pervasive God of the Hindus.

When looking at the historical records of these ancient peoples for their creation myths of the Hindus, the precursors to Vedānta[3] as it were, one fact that must be contended with is that their creation mythology is not so clearly codified and elucidated as its sister cultures in Mesopotamia, Greece and Egypt to the West.  While at first glance this seems somewhat odd given that the extant Sanskrit literature from deep antiquity of this ancient civilization is fairly extensive, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that the intent of the early transcribers and compilers of the Vedas and early mythological literature were more concerned about the narratives and metaphysical principles surrounding the attainment of the highest form of knowledge, knowledge of Brahman, from which their later notions of personal liberation, or mokṣa, were ultimately based.[4]

One of the unique contributions of the Indo-Aryans is the conservation and preservation of the specificities of a great deal of their ancient sacrificial rites, hymns and mythology in textual form, i.e. the Vedas.  The only corresponding set of texts and scripture that rivals it in terms of age is the Avesta of the Indo-Iranians (Persians) to the West, which although shares many similar linguistic and cultural themes that are found in the Vedic Sanskrit lore, does not have the same unbroken and longstanding continuing tradition of preservation and interpretation into the modern era as do the Vedas.  So with the Vedas then we have a direct window into the world of the Asian & European pre-history like no other literary tradition in fact.

Like the Avesta to the West, the authors of the Vedas were focused primarily on documenting and capturing the ancient rituals and rites of their ancestors, and the knowledge therein, rather than establishing the divine authority of the king or ruling class, or the supreme divinity of a specific culture or geopolitical center, as was the case in the Mediterranean cultures in antiquity for example.  These rites and rituals which are described in the Vedas, and are still practiced today, are called yajña in Sanskrit, which means “sacrifice”, “devotion”, or “worship” and is classically associated with oblations or offerings, as well as in many cases sacred fire and the recitation of mantras (in Sanskrit).  But also, and somewhat unique to the Indo-Aryans, the meaning behind the rituals are also described in allegorical and mythical narratives known as the Upanishads, the philosophical portion of the Vedas which describes the nature of Ātman and Brahman, and the means by which ultimate Truth can be realized.

Their beliefs in the creation of the universe though, their cosmogony (or cosmogony), is not entirely absent from their ancient literature, but it is however somewhat scattered throughout a few different texts and compilations rather than combined in a single work like the Theogony of Hesiod, the Metamorphoses of Ovid or even the Enûma Eliš of the ancient Sumer-Babylonians.  Traces of these mythological narratives can be found most notably in the Rigvéda, the oldest of the Vedic texts written in Vedic Sanskrit, and in the Purāṇas, a somewhat later composition, and then in the Laws of Manu as well which has a passage that deals with cosmogony specifically.

 

The Eastern philosophical tradition – and in this context we mean the Indo-Aryan as well as the Far Eastern (Chinese) – is very consistent from the earliest written records with respect to its emphasis on basic, classical philosophical questions in tandem to its emphasis on faith and theology.  No doubt the Vedic/Hindu theological tradition in antiquity had its pantheon of gods and goddesses which were formed out of the primordial chaos/ether from which the material universe emanates, just as the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions espoused in fact, but the philosophical and mystical strain of thought, the unknowable nature of the Creator as it were, is embedded at the very root of the Eastern theo-philosophical traditions and was not subsumed by the grandiose anthropomorphic creationist tenets and dogmatic scriptural reliance that is so characteristic of the Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) religions of the West.

In Daoism Hinduism, and Buddhism, we see a much more theo-philosophic flavor from the very beginning of the textual record than we do in the theologies that develop in the Mediterranean that we are so familiar with today.  We can see this distinct and enduring philosophical bent of the Indo-Aryan people from some of the earliest passages we find about universal creation, cosmogony, from the Rigvéda in particular, which codifies stories, remnants and artifacts of the ritualistic, mythological and philosophical belief systems of the Indo-Aryan peoples from pre-historic times from which the Hindu religion as it we know it today eventually emerges.[5]

The Rigvéda is transcribed in Sanskrit verse, so there is a meter and a poetry to it that can only truly be appreciated when it is heard, typically when it is chanted as it is still done today.  These verses, the text, is believed to be divinely inspired and to have co-existed with creation itself, and thereby lies at the heart of not just Vedānta but Hinduism proper as well.  This belief in the co-existence of scripture with universal creation, or at least divine inspiration, is something that the Hindus share with their Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) brethren to the West.

In the Rigvéda, the creation of the universe is said to have emerged from a single, undivided fundamental cosmic principle that was akin to water, āpas, or “cosmic water” which derives from the root Vedic Sanskrit word for water.[6]  The first sentient being who emerged from this cosmic water from which all the major gods, earth, heavens, underworld, etc. emerged was Puruṣa, or Tvastr.  From this primordial cosmic being then came the gods of the Sky and Earth, and then from this triad all the lesser gods came into existence.

There was neither “being” [sat] nor “non-being” [asat] then, nor intermediate space, nor heaven beyond it.  What turned around?  Where?  In whose protection?  Was there water? — Only a deep abyss.  …Darkness was hidden by darkness, in the beginning.  A featureless salty ocean was all this (universe).  A germ, covered by emptiness, was born through the power of heat as the One.[7]

Note the parallels here to the traditions to the west (the Sumer-Babylonian mythos from the Enûma Eliš and Egyptian mythos for example) which have the original formation of the universe, the cosmos, also germinating form this notion of salt water, or watery chaos, the primordial unordered basis for the universe in all its parts.  We also see here the reference to the lack of light, “darkness within darkness”, reminiscent of the Genesis creation story of the creation of light as one of the first principle acts of creation.

However what probably stands out the most here, and is characteristic of the Vedic tradition as a whole (and one of the reasons why the early mythological narratives are not captured in the Vedas in fact) is that even when the author speaks of the creation of the universe, it is primarily doing so to point out that the initial state is fundamentally “unknowable”, a skeptical bent that is not only akin to Plato’s forms upon which the material universe is manifest and through which any knowledge or truth can be  found, but also setting the stage for the core philosophical, and scientific in many respects, bent for Upanishadic philosophy, which are primarily concerned with the nature, and ultimate knowledge and understanding, of Brahman and Ātman as basic theo-philosophical concepts.  As such we see the importance of self-realization over understanding right from the very start of the Indo-Aryan theo-philosophical tradition, relegating the world of myth to a more secondary role than it plays the early civilizations to the West.[8]

Another passage from Rigvéda which reflects this basic undercurrent of skepticism can be found from the Nasadiya Sukta (after the phrase ná ása “not the non-existent”), one of the most oft quoted and famous verses form the Indo-Aryan Vedic literature:

  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.[9]

Here we have, in the English translation/transliteration of course, one of the earliest perspectives on universal creation that has ever been written.  While Old Testament Genesis creation mythology, which bears many similarities to Sumer-Babylonian mythos as has been well documented, is a first millennium BCE creation more or less, the Rigvéda verses and text have been dated to a period of time in ancient history some millennium or so earlier, to mid or late second millennium BCE and clearly originates from a lyric oral tradition that reaches much further back into antiquity.

What we see in this verse of the Rigvéda from purely mythical perspective is very similar in some respects to what we see in ancient Egyptian and Sumer-Babylonian cultures, the origin of the universe stemming from a fundamental, non-differentiated and chaotic cosmic principle – in this case somewhat questioningly identified with water.[10]  We also see anthropomorphic elements here as well, albeit from a very agnostic perspective.  We can however see the validation of the existence of gods and goddesses, they are not denied, but they are a secondary ontological principle to that which forms the basis of creation – the one who breathes life into the universe.

But what is so distinctive of this passage, and the Eastern tradition as a whole, is the direct reference to the unknowable nature of the universe, laying the epistemological and philosophical groundwork to the long standing and rich philosophical tradition of the Indo-Aryan peoples from which Buddhism and Vedānta eventually emerge.  This passage clearly indicates that this epistemological bent which is such a marked characteristic of the Eastern philosophical traditions reaches deep into antiquity.

What’s also interesting about this verse in the Rigvéda, is that despite sharing many common cosmological motifs with its Western counterparts– order from chaos, primordial waters, desire (Eros) sowing the seed of creation – it also contains many of the core, underpinning philosophical elements that distinguish Vedānta from other theological traditions, not just in antiquity but into modern times as well.  The unknowable nature of creation and the Creator (Brahmā), the role of breath or life force in the creative process (prāṇa), the process of defining the unknowable by what it is not (versus what it is) which is another unique characteristic of the Eastern philosophical traditions and still can be found in some of the Buddhist, Vedic and Daoist philosophical schools even today.  Many of these seeds are sown here in this passage of the Rigvéda and it is for this reason no doubt that this passage is so often quoted Vedic sages and scholars alike.

The author continues in the next verse, harkening back to the rishis (rsis in the transliteration by Griffith and Ṛṣi in Sanskrit), the great sages of old who “divined” the Vedas.

  1. THE sacrifice drawn out with threads on every side, stretched by a hundred sacred ministers and one,—This do these Fathers weave who hitherward are come: they sit beside the warp and cry, Weave forth, weave back.

  2. The Man extends it and the Man unbinds it: even to this vault of heaven hath he outspun, it.  These pegs are fastened to the seat of worship: they made the Sāma-hymns their weaving shuttles.

  3. What were the rule, the order and the model? What were the wooden fender and the butter?  What were the hymn, the chant, the recitation, when to the God all Deities paid worship?

  4. Closely was Gāyatrī conjoined with Agni, and closely Savitar combined with Usnih.  Brilliant with Ukthas, Soma joined Anustup: Bṛhaspati’s voice by Brhati was aided.

  5. Virāj adhered to Varuṇa and Mitra: here Triṣṭup day by day was Indra’s portion.  Jagatī entered all the Gods together: so by this knowledge men were raised to Ṛṣis.

  6. So by this knowledge men were raised to Ṛṣis, when ancient sacrifice sprang up, our Fathers.  With the mind’s eye I think that I behold them who first performed this sacrificial worship.

  7. They who were versed in ritual and metre, in hymns and rules, were the Seven Godlike Ṛṣis.  Viewing the path of those of old, the sages have taken up the reins like chariot-drivers.[11]

Here we see the same skeptical nature of these unanswerable questions given the deep antiquity that the author of these sacred verses is reaching back into.  But we also see here the elemental importance of the rituals themselves, the rites and verses spoken, oblations and sacrifices given which facilitate the knowledge of the mysteries of the universe to man, i.e. the creation of the rishis, the great Indo-Aryan sages from deep antiquity who came up with the rites and rituals to commune with the divine.   The knowledge came from the union of all the primary deification principles through which true knowledge could be passed down to man and through which the message of the Vedas could be passed from the realm of the divine of their forefathers, i.e. the gods – Agni, Gayatri, Varuna, Indra etc. – down to their present day (and by present day we mean 43rd and 2nd millennium BCE) through preservation of the Vedas themselves and the knowledge therein.

While the hymns and verses surrounding Creation quoted above from the Rigvéda contain no doubt some of the seed philosophical elements that were later to evolve into the Upanishadic texts, the more esoteric and philosophical portion of the Vedas, there is another passage from the same collection of Rigvéda hymns to Puruṣa, the great “Cosmic Being” of the universe to which the Indo-Aryans looked upon as the divine manifestation of the creative principle of the cosmos.  In it we find more what we might consider more classically orthodox ancient mythological motifs.

It is from Hymn 10.90 of the Rigvéda, believed to be a somewhat later addition to the corpus (end of second millennium BCE) and is dedicated to Puruṣa, or the “Cosmic Being” from which the universe is formed.  He is the Demiurge of the Hellenic philosophical tradition, and the Yahweh of the Hebrews but the language and allegories used to describe the creative process take on a much more ancient, perhaps even Paleolithic anthropomorphic tone.

1 A THOUSAND heads hath Puruṣa, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet.
On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.

2 This Puruṣa 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 Puruṣa.
All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.

4 With three-fourths Puruṣa went up: one-fourth of him again was here.
Thence he strode out to every side over what cats not and what cats.

5 From him Virāj was born; again Puruṣa from Virāj was born.
As soon as he was born he spread eastward and westward o’er the earth.

6 When Gods prepared the sacrifice with Puruṣa as their offering,
Its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood.

7 They balmed as victim on the grass Puruṣa born in earliest time.
With him the Deities and all Sādhyas and Ṛṣis 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 Ṛcas and Sāma-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 Puruṣa 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 Rājanya made.
His thighs became the Vaiśya, from his feet the Śūdra 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 Vāyu 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, Puruṣa.

16 Gods, sacrificing, sacrificed the victim these were the earliest holy ordinances.
The Mighty Ones attained the height of heaven, there where the Sādhyas, Gods of old, are dwelling.[12]

Here we see many of the basic, core elements of ancient creation mythology that we are familiar with in the West – the creation of the seasons, animals, the genealogy of the principle gods of the old Hindu pantheon coming forth from this Protogenital being (Puruṣa), born out of the various parts of his body as it were – speaking to his every present and coexistent nature within all the deities and their creations despite him being perceived as an independent creator as well.  We also see the creation of the astral and celestial elements such as the Earth, Sun and Moon and Sky, as well as the emergence of the first pantheon of Gods such as Indra, Vāyu and Agni, all elements that are found in creation mythology throughout antiquity (the Greeks, the Romans, etc.).

We also see a connection drawn from the creation cosmogony to societal and theological structure, i.e. the caste system which was such a key component of the Indo-Aryan peoples for much of their history[13], and the connection between hymn and scripture and the godhead himself, i.e. the Vedas being spoken of here as coming forth from Puruṣa himself.  But implied in this passage is the critical importance of the sacrificial elements in the Vedas themselves as the catalyst for the creative process.  While one might expect that this was true in all ancient cultures – for example we similar practices and beliefs in the worship of Shàngdì to the Far East which follows similar patterns and theological beliefs about the importance of following the rituals and mantras precisely otherwise they lose their potency – we see a direct reference to their importance not only in the worlds of men but also in the realm of the immortals through which the universe was manifest.

Furthermore, this ancient primordial pseudo-anthropological epithet of the creator god, Puruṣa came to represent one of the two primary elements of the main dualistic branches of later Vedic philosophy – namely Sāṃkhya and Yoga, which both hold that the universal order is established and maintained by the two primordial male and female interactive forces.  Both of these systems hold universal creation to be the constant creative and destructive process of Puruṣa and Prakṛti, a cosmic dance between the active and passive, creative and receptive forces that are in constant struggle with each other for balance and harmony – very much akin to the Yīn and Yáng principles that permeate much of ancient Chinese philosophy which comes to play such an important role in later Daoist philosophy.

So again, we see the roots of the core Vedic and Hindu philosophical elements in the very earliest cosmological narratives of the Rigvéda, speaking not only to strength and persistence of the lineage within which it has been preserved, but also strong influence and connection of the ancient mythological narratives and underlying skepticism to the philosophical systems that emerge in later Info-Aryan antiquity.

 

The Purāṇas on the other hand are believed to have been compiled many centuries later than the Vedas, and represent an attempt to consolidate and organize the belief systems of the “Hindus”, the descendants and torch bearers of the Vedic tradition and heritage.  There are 17 or 18 “canonical” Purāṇas, and overall they contain almost a complete narrative of Hindu/Indo-Aryan history from cosmic creation, the generation and history of the gods and various deities (Sūryas, beings of light), the genealogies and legends of the demigods (Asūryas, beings without light), and various stories and legends of various heroes, kings and rulers that contributed to the creation and establishment of the Hindu civilization.

While the Purāṇas are considered to be “sectarian”, in the sense that they do not ascribe to any specific form of worship or establish the supremacy of a specific god or deity, they do reflect ancient forms of worship and adulation for the major Hindu gods from antiquity – namely Viṣṇu, Śiva and Devi among others.  In this respect the Purāṇas can be viewed as analogous to the works of Hesiod, Homer, and Ovid to the West, not only with respect to the form or prose within which they were written, but also the content and purpose of the work itself which was intended to capture in written form the ancient myths and tales of the ancient deities of the Indo-Aryans, thereby solidifying and codifying the civilization of ancient India, or the people which have come to be known as Hindus.

Authorship of the Purāṇas is attributed to Vyasa, the supposed author of the Mahābhārata epic as well, and from the Bhagavata Purāṇa, one of the eighteen major Purāṇas devoted primarily to the worship of Krishna as the incarnation of Viṣṇu, we find another reference to the primordial watery chaos from which the universe or cosmos emerges as well:

After separating the different universes, the gigantic universal form of the Lord, which came out of the causal ocean, the place of appearance for the first puruṣa-avatāra, entered into each of the separate universes, desiring to lie on the created transcendental water.[14]

The Purāṇas also describe in detail the Hindu concept of the cyclical nature of time and order of the known universe, and take a more expansive view of the notion of time as compared to the mythologies and cosmologies of the Sumerians, Egyptians, and most certainly the Greeks and Romans.  As described in the Purāṇas, the Hindu concept of time, and in turn their concept of creation mythology in general, is personified in the figure Brahmā, who is the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe.  Brahmā in this context is considered to have been created by Īśvara, and not necessarily equivalent to the Hindu conception of God necessarily although the distinction is subtle and depends upon context.  In the Hindu cosmogony, a universe endures for about 4,320,000,000 years, or one day of Brahmā, and is then destroyed by fire or water elements back into the source.  After the dissolution of the universe, Brahmā is said to rest for a day and then the cycle repeats itself all over again.

So the Hindu creation mythology ascribes the source of the universe to Brahmā, a layer of anthropomorphic abstraction between Brahman and the world of gods and men, who sits atop of the creation and destruction of this known universe, and that in turn each known universe has its own creation, preservation and destruction process and this process repeats itself ad infinitum through the ages.  We also find a very detailed account of creation in a very influential socio-political work from India called The Laws of Manu – aka Manusmriti – a work reflecting the latter part of the 2nd millennium BCE to the middle of the first millennium BCE (roughly running parallel with the transcription of the early Upanishads) dealing with social and cultural issues – laws, practices, customs, etc. – rather than ritual or mythical traditions as were codified in the Vedas and Upanishads.  In it Manu, the mythical Adam of the Indo-Aryans, lays out the social philosophical principles and practices to a group of great sages (rishis), providing the guiding principles that were to underpin the governing of Indo-Aryan society for millennia.

Although not considered part of the orthodox Vedic scriptural tradition per se, the text is nonetheless extremely influential in the development of Indo-Aryan civilization, and Indian history in particular, as it lays the groundwork for the operation and management of a healthy society.  The work may be looked at in contrast, or similar to Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics although it contains a much more practical, or perhaps more aptly put Judaic-Christian (and Islamic) bent, as it deals with laws and the proper functioning of society in a very concrete way whereas the Greek philosophers dealt much more in the abstract.

The text deals primarily with what is referred to in the Indian philosophical tradition as dharma, a fairly deep and profound term which can be loosely translated as righteousness, path, or way but is a sophisticated and profound term that implies righteous and aligned living and is tightly interwoven into social considerations, i.e. one’s station in life.  It is a concept which is found in the Bhagavad Gītā as well and spans not just the Indian philosophical tradition but Buddhism too, speaking to its age, as well as its importance in the Eastern philosophical milieu in general.  But despite being a guidebook to good living and proper management of civilization as it were, the Laws of Manu contains a very well-constructed and detailed creation story (two variants actually) at its very beginning as well, its author feeling compelled no doubt to establish the basic underpinnings of not just the Indo-Aryan society, but of the universe at large, helping the great seers of old to who he was speaking connect the dots through creation itself to the emergence of advanced society.  Although a fairly lengthy passage, it is worth quoting (mostly) in full so the reader can gain a full appreciation of the depth of the story and its striking parallels with other ancient creation cosmological narratives.

There was this world – pitch dark, indiscernible, without distinguishing marks, unthinkable, incomprehensible, in a kind of deep sleep all over.  Then the Self-existent Lord appeared – the Unmanifest manifesting this world beginning with the elements, projecting his might, and dispelling the darkness.  That One – who is beyond the range of the senses; who cannot be grasped; who is subtle, unmanifest, and eternal; who contains all beings; and who transcends thought – it is he who shone forth on his own.

As he focused his thought with the desire of bringing forth diverse creatures from his own body, it was the waters that he first brought forth; and into them he poured forth his semen.  That became a golden egg, as bright as the sun; and in it he himself took birth as Brahmā, the grandfather of all the worlds.

After residing in the egg for a full year, the Lord on his own split the egg in two by brooding on his own body.  From these two halves, he formed the sky and the earth, and between them the mid-space, the eight directions, and the eternal place of the waters.

From his body, moreover, he drew out the mind having the nature of both the existent and the non-existent; and from the mind, the ego – producer of self-awareness and ruler – as also the great self, all things composed of the three attributes [the three gunas, or qualities; i.e. sattva, rajas and tamas] and gradually the five sensory organs that grasp the sense objects.  By merging the subtle parts of these six possessing boundless might into particles of his own body, moreover, he formed all beings.  Because the six parts of his physical frame became attached to these beings, the wise called his physical frame “body”.  The great elements[15] enter it accompanied by their activities, as also the mind, the imperishable producer of all beings, accompanied by its subtle particles.

From the subtle particles of the physical frames of the seven males of great might, this world comes into being, the perishable from the imperishable.  Of these, each succeeding element acquires the quality specific to each preceding.  Thus, each element, tradition tells us, possesses the same number of qualities as the number of its position in the series.  In the beginning through the words of the Veda alone, he fashioned for all of them specific names and activities, as also specific stations.

The Lord brought forth the group of gods who are endowed with breath and whose nature it is to act, the subtle group of Sadhyas, and the eternal sacrifice.  From fire, wind, and sun, he squeezed out the eternal triple Veda characterized by the Rig verses, the Yajus formulas, and the Saman chants, for the purpose of carrying out the sacrifice.  Time, divisions of time, constellations, planets, rivers, oceans, mountains, flat and rough terrain, austerity, speech, sexual pleasure, desire, and anger – he brought forth this creation in his wish to bring forth these creatures.

To establish distinctions among activities, moreover, he distinguished the Right (dharma) from the Wrong (adharma) and afflicted these creatures with the pairs of opposites such as pleasure and pain.  Together with the perishable atomic particles of the five elements given in tradition, this whole world comes into being in an orderly sequence.  As they are brought forth again and again, each creature follows on its own the very activity assigned to it in the beginning by the Lord.  Violence or non-violence, gentleness or cruelty, righteousness (dharma) or unrighteousness (adharma), truthfulness or untruthfulness – whichever he assigned to each at the time of creation, it stuck automatically to that creature.  As the change of seasons each season automatically adopts its own distinctive marks, so do embodied beings adopt their own distinctive acts.

For the growth of these worlds, moreover, he produced from his mouth, arms, thighs, and feet, the Brahmin, the Ksatriya, the Vaisya, and the Sudra.[16]

Here we see a much more comprehensive and elaborate creation story relative to its parallel verses in the Vedas, and the integration of a much more sophisticated philosophical system, but yet at the same time shows clear signs of strong Vedic (Rigvéda) influence.  We see the emergence of an ordered world from a primordial chaotic universe through the will and power of an anthropomorphic grand deity, the universe itself being a manifestation of his physical form and creation occurring by his will/seed across the primordial waters.

We also see the inclusion of the analogy of the “cosmic egg” from which came forth the sky and the earth, a metaphor which can be found in various Brāhmaṇas, and in the Chāndogyo Upanishad (3.19), one of the earliest of the Upanishads from the early part of the first millennium BCE.  In the Chāndogyo Upanishad, the cosmic egg splits into golden and silver parts and from which the sky and earth germinate respectively.  A reference to this same “golden egg” can also be found in Rigvéda verse as well (10.121), where the Sanskrit word Hiraṇyagarbha[17], literally the “golden womb” or “golden egg”, is used as an epithet of the Creator, or Brahmā[18].

We furthermore see in this rendition of creation and the emergence of the gods, the Vedas themselves and the rituals which they describe and encode, the core elements of the universe (ether, wind, light, water, earth), the celestial elements of the universe, time itself, etc. all emerging from this great creation process, as do the creation of all living beings and creatures on earth.  Parallels here can be drawn directly with the order of creation in Genesis for example, while the segmentation into 7 days isn’t found but the basic natural universal creation narrative follows a very similar line.

Finally at the end, and consistent with the purpose of the treatise as a whole, with some antecedents found in the Vedas themselves, we have a final attestation of the establishment of right (dharma) from wrong (adharma), as well as the basic social structure, as the final piece of creation and the establishment of order, leading quote nicely into the text itself which now sits on the foundation of universal order, from which the social order arises.

 

So what we see in the Vedic-Hindu creation mythos then, and what distinguishes it from the Judeo-Christian tradition (again within which we place Islam) is a strong philosophical and analytical bent that goes back to the roots of the very scriptural tradition itself.  This unbroken tradition, which starts with the pre-historical Indo-Aryans as reflected in the Vedas, and then passes through the Upanishadic phase which further codifies and elaborates on the philosophical and ritualistic tradition that we find in the Vedas and then moves to a more classic Western epic poetry phase which involves the pre-eminence of gods and heroes – the Mahābhārata, Ramayana and Purāṇas – includes not just what we would consider to be the classic theological components of a religion in today’s modern parlance – the classic creation story/myth – but also an underlying thread of philosophy and esotericism which were altogether abandoned from the Judeo-Christian narrative as it looked to focus more not on incorporating various streams of thought and schools of (philosophical) belief but on excluding as many different interpretations and traditions as possible so as to avoid any shadow of doubt with respect to how God was to be viewed and how his creation was to be perceived and even how one was to live their life in concordance with the laws of the Church.

So the Hindu creation mythos ascribes the source of the universe to Brahmā, a layer of anthropomorphic abstraction between the world of gods and men, who sits atop of the creation and destruction of this known universe, and that in turn each known universe has its own creation, preservation and destruction process and this process repeats itself ad infinitum through the ages.  The Brahmā of the Hindus is equivalent theologically to the Judeo-Christian God, and is also akin to the Shàngdì of the Chinese and the Greek conception of Zeus.

With the Indo-Aryan tradition then, we find belief in a single unified Creator God, Brahmā, coupled with a robust philosophical tradition – Vedānta – from which the social and ethical structure of society evolves from and sits upon – as exemplified with Manu’s Laws and ethical precepts.  We also have a rich mythical poetic narrative, that is coupled with and compliments this deep philosophical system of thought no doubt capturing the imagination of Hindu’s from time immemorial.  The cosmogony embedded in the various scriptural texts, some of which we have looked at in detail here, captures the essence and order of universal creation, from the creation of the stars and heavens. Sun and moon, the great gods, the establishment of the ancient rituals themselves and the rituals and rites surrounding them that are captured in the Vedas, down to the world of beasts and men the establishment of different classes of society.

Complementary to this creation mythos, and the true legacy of the Hindus and Indo-Aryan culture one might argue, is that the experience of the divine was a personal experience and was not the domain of any religious or political bureaucracy.  And this system of belief, this religion, held that there were many paths to divine illumination, and that each individual was free to choose the path, and the gods to worship, based upon their own preferences and desires.  This was the unique contribution of the Hindu faith, and what still characterizes the society of India today where all religious faiths and paths are equally respected and integrated into the overall society.

 

 


[1] Puruṣa, or sometimes Purusa (Sanskrit: पुरुष), can be translated as “Cosmic Being” which is one of the epithets of Brahman, the Vedic anthropomorphic being who creates the universe, analogous to Plato’s Demiurge and the Yahweh of the Hebrews.  Hiraṇyagarbha (Sanskrit: हिरण्यगर्भ) is another epithet of Brahman found in the Vedas which means literally “golden womb” or “golden egg”.

[2] Indo-Aryan is a philological (study of the development of language) term that we use here to describe the civilization that sprung forth in antiquity on the Indian subcontinent, the ancestors of the people of modern day India basically.  Technically the word means people that speak Indo-Aryan, a theoretical language construct that belongs to the Indo-Iranian language family which is the largest language family (i.e. having the most variants and being the most widely spoken) of the Indo-European family of languages.  The Indo-European language family also contains Greek and Latin, the precursors to modern European languages and while these languages are not directly related to Sanskrit they are in the same language family and they share many of the same root words as well as share similar language structures.  Indo-European languages are spoken today in most of Europe and parts of Western, Central and South Asia and include English, Spanish, French, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian and Punjabi among others.

[3] Vedānta: literally “end of the Vedas”.

[4] moka sometimes translated as Moksha, which is a key Sanskrit term in Indian philosophy which refers to the Soul’s (jiva’s) “emancipation”, “liberation”, or “release”, in the classic soteriological sense, from saṃsāra, which is the Sanskrit for “wandering” or “world” and in this context denotes the unending cycle of death and rebirth.

[5] Buddhism  is an offshoot of the Vedic tradition in fact.  The teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, aka Buddha, were very much a reaction to the orthodox exclusivity of the Brahmin Vedic tradition in much the same way that the teachings of Christ were a reaction to Jewish orthodox rabbinical theology and culture.

[6] Ap (áp-) is the Vedic Sanskrit term for “water”, in Classical Sanskrit occurring only in the plural, āpas.

[7] Rigvéda 10. 129.  Translation from The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, by E.J. Michael Witzel.  Oxford University Press, 2012.

[8] It is interesting to note that this is also a characteristic of the early theo-philosophical traditions in the Far East as well, where the underlying creation mythology of the ancient peoples has to be gleaned from and parsed through much later compilations by later historians and poets rather than from the earliest extant texts which were more concerned, at least in ancient China, with capturing historical records, divination practices and philosophy proper – in particular socio-political philosophy.

[9] From the 129th hymn of the 10th Mandala of the Rig-Véda.  Griffith 1896: Hymn CXXIX. Creation.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/Rigvéda/rv10129.htm

[10] Ap (áp-) is the Vedic Sanskrit word for “water”, in Classical Sanskrit occurring only in the plural, āpas.

[11] Rig Véda, translated. by Ralph T.H. Griffith, [1896].  Hymn CXXX.  “Creation”.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/Rigvéda/rv10130.htm

[12] Rig Véda, translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith. 1896.  Hymn XC. “Purusa”.  From  http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/Rigvéda/rv10090.htm.

[13] Thought to be a later addition to the verses to provide Vedic authority for the class structure and stratification of society based upon heredity – i.e. the caste system.

[14] Bhagavata Purāṇa 2.10.10

[15] “Elements” here, and below, referring to the five classic elements of the universe from the Indian philosophical perspective which diverged somewhat from the classic earth, air, water, fire that we are accustomed to seeing (alchemy for example) in the West.  We have ether, wind, light, water, and earth, each created one from the other at the beginning of the universe, emanating from the mind of the creator when he awakens from his deep sleep.  The process of creation of these elements, and their associated characteristics, is delineated in passage 1.75-8 of Laws of Manu and is alluded to here – “in a series”.

[16] Olivelle, 2005: pgs.  87-88

[17] Rig Véda, translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith. 1896.  CXXI “Ka”.  From  http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/Rigvéda/rv10090.htm.

[18] See Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies 2012 pgs. 121-124 for a comprehensive look at the cosmic egg analogy in world myth.



Categories: Ancient Civilization, Ancient Cosmology, Essays, Vedanta

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