In a striking difference to other major religions, Hinduism is carried by a mixture of intellectual and philosophical viewpoints rather than a fixed set of beliefs. Because of this there are various creation myths that sometimes appear to be at variance with each other.
Hindu is the Persian name for the Indus River that flows through the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent. Several thousand years ago this river valley saw the rise of a great culture that covered an area the size of Western Europe. It was the largest of the four ancient civilizations—before that of Mesopotamia, Egypt and China. The connection between the Indus Valley people and the Vedic civilization of north and north-western India has over time been muddied by the theory known as the Aryan invasion.
Pashupati seal, Indus Valley civilization, has drawn attention as a possible representation of a "yogi" or "proto-siva" figure. 2600–1900 BCE. (Public Domain)
19th century scholars believed that Sanskrit originated in Europe or Western Asia and would therefore have come to the Indian sub-continent through an invasion of Indo-Europeans who conquered the existing Dravidians. It was thought that these Aryan invaders brought with them their Vedic rituals and customs. New research is beginning to show that this might not be the case.
Truth Alone Triumphs
Satyameva Jayate, “Truth Alone Triumphs”, is the national motto of India, yet few know that it is Vedic in origin. The word veda translates as knowledge, coming from the Sanskrit word vid, denoting understanding, learning or having a correct notion of.
The national emblem of India is derived from the time of the Emperor Ashoka. The emblem is a replica of the Lion of Sarnath, near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. The four lions symbolize power, courage and confidence, and they rest on a circular abacus. Beneath is written ‘Satyameva Jayate’. (Public Domain)
Vedas, the Sacred Scriptures
Considered the most sacred scriptures of Hinduism, the Vedas are referred to as sruti, meaning what was heard by or revealed to the rishis or sages. The holiest hymns and mantras are collected together into four separate works named the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas.
“Geographical distribution of the Vedic era texts. Each of major regions had their own recension of Rig Veda (Sakhas), and the versions varied.” (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Rig Veda is the oldest of the four and contains many Indo-Iranian pieces, hinting at a strong link to the Indus Valley culture.
Over a thousand hymns or suktas are divided into ten sections called mandalas. Known as the Family Books, Mandalas 2 to 7 are the oldest section, making up just over a third of the entire Rig Veda. Hymn 129 of Mandala 10 sets the creation tone as it begins in a state of nothingness.
From Nothingness to Creation
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?
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.
Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.
Rigveda manuscript in Sanskrit on paper, India, early 19th century. (Public Domain)
In the same Mandala, hymn 90 tells of Purusha, a primordial giant with a thousand heads and a thousand feet. It is believed that Purusha is the Lord of Immortality, the Cosmic Man and the Universal Spirit. In the Purusha sukta this giant being is sacrificed by the gods to bring about creation.
From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up.
He formed the creatures of-the air, and animals both wild and tame.
From that great general sacrifice Ṛcas (mantras) and Sāma (songs)-hymns were born:
Therefrom were spells and charms produced; the Yajus (sacrificial formulae) had its birth from it.
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.
The gods, or Devas, divided his body further, bringing about the four aspects of the Hindu caste system: from his mouth were created the priests and the teachers, the Brahman; from his arms came the warriors and the rulers, the Ksatriya caste; his thighs were the next caste, the Vaisya, consisting of the farmers, the merchants and the artisans; and from his feet came the Sudra, the laborers.
The Moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the Sun had birth;
Indra (Sky-God) and Agni (Fire-God) from his mouth were born, and Vāyu (Wind-God) from his breath.
Forth from his navel came mid-air, the sky was fashioned from his head
Earth from his feet, and from his ear the regions. Thus they formed the worlds.
In mythology, Brahma emerges from a lotus risen from Vishnu's navel while he rests on the serpent Shesha. (Public Domain)
The Four Worlds
A different, somewhat darker, story of the creation of the world and the heavens is to be found in the Upanishads. Found in the conclusions of the Vedas, the Aitareya Upanishad is one of the oldest of the Upanishads, belonging to the Aitareya Aranyaka of the Rig Veda. It begins with The Highest Self in the void.
He thought: 'Shall I send forth worlds?' He sent forth these worlds,
Ambhas (water), Mariki (light), Mara (mortal), and Ap (water). That Ambhas (water) is above the heaven, and it is heaven, the support. The Marîkis (the lights) are the sky. The Mara (mortal) is the earth, and the waters under the earth are the Ap world.
According to Müller, the German Orientalist who made these translations, the given names of the four worlds are somewhat strange. Ambhas means water, and is the name given to the highest world, the waters above the heaven, and heaven itself. Marikis are rays, here used as a name of the sky, Antariksha. Mara means dying, and the earth is called Death, because all creatures living on it are going to die. Ap is water, here explained as the waters under the earth. Whereas the usual division of world is into three parts; Earth, Sky, and Heaven, in this case it is divided into four, with an extra division being the water round the earth, or, as the commentator says, under the earth. The creation continues with the formation of Purusha which follows the same structure as Mandala 10.
He thought: 'There are these worlds; shall I send forth guardians of the worlds?'
Eyes burst forth. From the eyes proceeded sight, from sight Âditya (sun).
burst forth. From the ears proceeded hearing, from hearing the Dis (quarters of the world),
Skin burst forth. From the skin proceeded hairs (sense of touch), from the hairs shrubs and trees.
The heart burst forth. From the heart proceeded mind, from mind Kandramas (moon).
The generative organ burst forth. From the organ proceeded seed, from seed water.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna says: “I pervade the Universe. All objects in the Universe rest on me as pearls on the thread of a garland.”
The Supreme Force and the Major Gods
In Hinduism it is believed there is one supreme force in the universe; that force is Brahman, the Supreme One; the Supreme One is behind and beyond everything.
Swan (Hansa, हंस) is the symbol for Brahman-Atman in Hindu iconography. (CC BY 2.0)
Brahman is said to have three functions and these are manifested through the three major gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. These three are sometimes shown as three heads merging into one and are known as the Trimurti. Each Universe is made by Lord Brahma the Creator, maintained by Lord Vishnu the Preserver and then destroyed by Lord Shiva. Since the universes must be destroyed before they can be recreated, Lord Shiva is called the Destroyer and Re-creator.
Detail; Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. (Public Domain)
According to the Upanishads, after creating the Universe, the Creator entered into each and every object to help them maintain their interrelationship. This is known as Atman, and is the essential self of every being, including plants and animals. Hindus believe that there is soul in all plants and animals and it is necessary to do penance even for killing plants and animals for food. This daily penance is called visva deva. Visva deva is an offering of food to the Creator, asking his pardon.
Chola dynasty statue depicting Shiva as Lord of the Dance. (Public Domain)
Cycles of Time
It appears that within the framework of Hinduism there is no conflict between creation and evolution, and perhaps this is because of the concept of the day of Brahma. Hindu time is a cyclic concept rather than the, perhaps more familiar, linear one.
The Kalpa, or day of Brahma, lasts 4.32 billion years. The day of Brahma is followed by an equally long night of Brahma. The cycle of days and nights of Brahma goes on for Brahma's lifetime of one hundred years (36,000 nights), equivalent to over 300 trillion human years. During the day of Brahma, there is life. During the night there is no life. This is represented by the Kala Chakra or the wheel of time, and is the symbol of perfect creation, of the cycles of existence. At the end of each Kalpa the universe begins its cycle again.
After each old universe is destroyed nothing is left but an endless ocean.
The Creation of the Cosmic Ocean and the Elements, folio from the Shiva Purana, c. 1828. (Public Domain)
The Myths and Legends of the Purana
The Vishnu Purana relates what happens as each Kalpa ends. The Puranas were deliberately written to take the religion of the Vedas to the masses. Containing the essence of the Vedas, the Puranas use myths and legends as well as the chronicles of historical characters and events to reinforce the population’s devotion to God. The sages or rishis use the Puranas to illustrate the principles of religion and religious teachings. They were aimed quite squarely at the ordinary people who either couldn’t read the Vedas or couldn’t understand the high philosophies of the priesthood. Even to this day the Puranas are still popular.
A Hermit (Rishi), India was an inspired poet of Ṛegvedic hymns. They were responsible for tending sacrificial fires and were said to invoke gods with poetry. 11th century AD. (Public Domain)
It is written the Day of Brahma draws to a close and the universe is destroyed:
Vishnu…assumes the awful form of Rudra, and swallows up the universe. Having thus devoured all things, and converted the world into one vast ocean, the Supreme reposes upon his mighty serpent couch amidst the deep: he awakes after a season, and again, as Brahma, becomes the author of creation.
Rudra is a Storm-God and his name is usually translated as “The Roarer” or the “Howler” and is also regarded as being synonymous with Shiva.
The Creation of the World
Vishnu resting on Ananta-Shesha, with his consort Lakshmi. (Public Domain)
As the long night comes to an end the tale goes that Lord Vishnu is asleep in the coils of the giant serpent Sheshnag, floating on an endless ocean. Everything is peaceful and silent. From the depths of the ocean comes a sound, a humming, the sound of Om, filling the emptiness with a new energy. The night is over and Lord Vishnu awakes. From his navel grows a magnificent lotus flower and in the middle of the blossom sits Vishnu’s servant Brahma. Vishnu tells Brahma that it is time to begin again. Vishnu and the serpent disappear and Lord Brahma is left alone in the middle of the ocean floating on his lotus flower. He splits the flower into three parts: one part becomes the Heavens, the second part the Earth and the third part forms the skies. But the Earth is empty so Lord Brahma creates the grass and the flowers, the trees and all the plants. He brings forth the animals and the insects to live on the land, the birds to fill the skies and the fish to stock the seas and rivers. To all of these he gives the ability to see and hear, to touch and smell and the power to move. The world is alive once more and full of the sounds of Lord Brahma’s creation.
The Matsya Purana has this version:
In the beginning, there was nothing in the universe; there was only darkness and the “Brahman” or divine essence. It is impossible to describe and from out of the water came the many-headed serpent Sheshnag. Sheshnag is the resting place for Lord Vishnu. Next from the water a golden egg appeared that shone with the light of a thousand suns. Inside the egg was Brahma who stayed there for a thousand years. When the time was right, the egg split in two and Brahma emerged. Heaven was created from one half of the egg and the other half became the Earth. The Sun emerged and took its place in the Heavens. While he was in the egg Brahma had manifested all the land, the mountains, the rivers and the oceans and these all took their places in the new creation. Lord Brahma’s first act was to meditate and during this time the Vedas and the Puranas and other sacred texts all came out of his mouth.
In the Satapatha Brahmana, the Lord of Creatures, Prajaapati reproduces himself through the process known as tapas: a supernatural heat formed through self-discipline. He then releases the waters and enters them in the form of a golden egg, only to emerge later and create the Earth, the Sky and the ‘Middle Regions.’ The Satapatha Brahmana also describes how humanity is descended from Manu, the sole survivor of a great flood.
May I be reproduced from these waters!' He entered the waters with that triple science. Thence an egg arose. He touched it. 'Let it exist! let it exist and multiply!' so he said. From it the Brahman was first created, the triple science.
Even the gods and the rishis became confused by the number of creation stories and had to ask Vishnu what really happened. Vishnu explained that there was the original creation when nothing existed and Brahma was born from the Golden Egg, then there are the creations that happen at the beginning of each Kalpa after all living things have been destroyed apart from the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Perhaps it is best summed up by the words from Hymn 29, Book 10 of the Rig Veda:
Who knows then whence it first came into being? 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.
A page of a Bhagavata Purana illustrated manuscript in Devanagari. Illustration depicts Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva seated on their respective vahanas, or mythical mounts. (Public Domain)
Featured image: Deriv; Shiva (Iqbal Mohammed, Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0) and Rigveda manuscript in Sanskrit on paper.
Rig Veda, Ralph Griffith, tr., 1896 / The Upanishads, Part 1, Max Müller, tr., 1879
The Vishnu Purana, H.H. Wilson, tr., 1840 / Satapatha Brahmana, Julius Eggeling, tr., 1894