Srishti & Beyond: Hindu accounts of Creation, Evolution and Non-Origination
“Which is the beginning of life?
When did creation start?
Of the waves in the ocean, which is the first?
What is the boundary for the wind’s constant blowing?
Such is the story of the universe.”
– DV Gundappa in Mankutimanna Kagga [Sreekrishna, K and Ravikumar, H. (Tr). (2015)]
Accounts of origination of the universe and of human beings can be found across various genres of Hindu textual tradition. Sruti, Smriti, Itihasa, Purana, all of them deal extensively with the question of origination.
Dr. Koti Sreekrishna and Hari Ravikumar in their book “Srishti: Songs of Creation from the Vedas” identify eleven Suktas in the Rigveda, twenty-two Suktas in the Yajurveda, three in Samaveda and twelve Suktas in the Atharvaveda, a total of forty-eight Suktas in the entirety of Vedas, including the Upanishads as directly dealing with the theme of Origination. Additionally, they have identified a large number of miscellaneous passages which also speak about creation. While some Suktas like the famous Nasadiya Sukta are speculative, the others are decisive. But, what is interesting is that they provide a wide range of alternate accounts for the origination of the universe and life.
Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh, in his introduction to the above mentioned book, writes thus about the exhaustive and diverse nature of the creation accounts in the Vedas:
|“The poems, songs, and stories about creation in the Vedas are numerous and diverse. While some are very speculative, others are definitive.“The Vedas speak about creation from a certain source – brahman, Non-existence, Existence, Time, Water, yajna, tapas, atman, the first being, Mind, Sweat, om, golden embryo, golden egg, cosmic horse, cosmic pillar, or ultimate remainder. They also talk about the creation of the world by the union of the male and the female. Further, the creation poems refer to a certain creator deity who undertakes the act of creation – purusha, the cosmic person, Vishwakarma, Prajapati, Brahmaa and Indra. Some creation poems deal with the creation of the deities, of purusha, of time and its divisions, of the human body, of death, of food, of speech. In the Vedas we also find a few stories about creation- Manu and the great flood and the death and revival of Prajapati.… Creation, therefore, is not seen as a one-time event. Time also is seen as cyclical and eternal – without a beginning or an end.”|
In the Smritis, likewise, we find different accounts of origination. Manu Smriti, for example, dedicates an entire chapter for this purpose, wherein it enunciates in detail not only the process of manifestation of the basic structure and elements of the universe, but also about the origination of different species of plants, animals, and different beings – humans, Yakshas, Gandharvas, Rakshasas and others. At one level, it speaks about the origination of the universe and at another level about the origination of the human race and society, of the different Manu-s, and of different Varnas. It differentiates between animals that are born from wombs, those born from eggs and those produced from heat. It also differentiates between various kinds of plants, based on whether they grow from shoots or propagated through seeds, whether they bear both flowers and fruits or only fruits without flowers.
The Itihasa-Puranas give detailed and variegated accounts of the origination as well. In fact, without an account about the origination of the universe and of human society Puranas will not be considered as such. According to their own self-definition available in a number of texts like Matsya Purana, etc. a Purana text must cover five subjects, which constitute the five signs or Pancha-Lakshanas of this genre of literature: Sarga, Pratisarga, Vamsha, Manvantara and Vamshanucharitam. Sarga refers to primary creation; Pratisarga refers to secondary creation; Vamsha is the genealogy of humans and gods – of deities, sages, and kings; Manvantara refers to the history and lifetimes of the Manu-s, the progenitors of the human race; and Vamshanucharitam recounts the history and achievements of various kings and their dynasties.
The Puranic accounts of Origination or Sarga is of two kinds: Prakrita and Vaikrita. The Prakrita is a primary level of manifestation of the universe from Prakriti or Avyakruta to Mahat to Panchabhutas and Panchatanmatras. This follows either a Samkhyan or a Vedantic process of evolution of the basic structure of the Universe. Stephan Knapp notes that this primary creation is basically a product of interaction between “modes of material nature and the time element.” The Vaikrita or secondary level of manifestation, on the other hand, is the manifestation of different beings and creatures in innumerable types of bodies and having different level of consciousness. This includes manifestation of immovable entities, followed by lower species of life, and finally humans, deities and other astral beings. Knapp notes that this is accomplished directly by “the superior power or guidance of Lord Brahma”.
The Bhagavata Purana speaks about destruction or Laya of the Universe at four levels, which can also give an insight into creation, since, every Laya is followed by Srishti, which again is followed by another Laya. The first level of creation-destruction is at the level of Brahmaa. Each day of Brahmaa is called a Kalpa and its duration is one thousand Mahayugas or 432,000,000 human years. Each night of Brahmaa is also of the same duration. When Brahmaa sleeps, there is the destruction of the three worlds, which return to their potential state within Brahmaa. This is called Naimittika or occasional dissolution. When Brahmaa awakes, then, there is Naimittika Srishti. The second and higher level of creation-destruction is at the level of Mula-Prakriti or Avyakruta. Brahmaa is considered to live up to hundred Brahmaa years. When his lifespan is over, all objects of the universe, including Brahmaa himself become annihilated and absorbed into a state of Unmanifestation (into Prakriti). This dissolution is called Prakritika laya. Again from this state of Unmanifestation, emerges a new cycle of Prakritika Srishti. The third is Nitya laya or continuous destruction that is silently happening at every moment with time continuously dissolving and creating objects and beings in the universe. The fourth is Atyantika laya or final liberation owing to knowledge about true Self, i.e. Moksha, from which there is no return back to the cycle of creation-destruction. The time-spans involved in these different stages of creation-destruction are enormous. Dr. Ganesh, rightly notes that “the Puranas envision an immense space-time continuum – the spatial expansion of the universe starts with a speck of dust and runs into billions and billions of miles while the temporal expansion starts from a fraction of a second and runs into billions and billions of millennia.”
But, the gamut of Hindu understanding of origination does not end here. While the textual tradition of Sruti, Smriti, Itihasa and Purana provide a number of variegated accounts of Srishti-laya cycle, the Darshanas systematize these accounts into various theories and methodologies explaining the process of origination: Arambha-vada of Nyaya-Vaisheshikas; Paramanukarana-vada of Vaisheshikas; Prakriti-Parinamavada of Samkhya, Yoga, Dvaita and Vishishtadvaita Vedanta; Svatah-Pramanavada of Mimamsa; Vivartavada of Advaita Vedanta; Kshanika-vada and Vijnana-vada of Bauddhas; Syat-vada of Jainas; Svabhava-vada of Lokayatas (Charvakas) and many more. These various methodologies with different nuances can be broadly reduced into four categories, which are of relevance to the present discussion. They are: Arambha-vada, Parinama-vada, Vivarta-vada, belonging to Astika Darshanas and Svabhava-vada of the Nastika Charvaka Darshana.
Arambha-vada, also called as Asat-karya-vada is a theory of non-existing effect. It posits that before the manifestation of the effect from the cause, the effect was non-existent. That is, every manifestation of effect is a new creation, hence the term “Arambbha” or “new beginning”. For example, for the Vaisheshikas, the universe is freshly created using the paramanus or atomic particles as the raw-materials. Contrary to this, both Parinama and Vivarta-vada posits Sat-karya-vada i.e. effect as already existing in the cause in potential or subtle form. While for the Parinama-vada, there is a real transformation of the cause into the effect, the transformation is only an appearance in the Vivarta. For the Samkhyas, the Prakriti undergoes real transformation and becomes the universe. For the Vishishtadvaitins, Brahman itself undergoes real transformation and becomes the universe. The Advaita Vedanta, on the other hand, holds that Brahman, though birthless, is also the material and intelligent cause of the universe. Brahman achieves this by manifesting this universe as merely an appearance, like a dream or magic, without a real transformation. The Charvakas propagate Svabhava-vada, according to which, the universe is merely matter without a conscious principle and hence, its creation is also mechanistic.
From above, we can see that different streams of modern scientific theories of origination of the universe can be accommodated into a number of Hindu Darshanic theories, including Svabhava-vada of Charvakas, Arambha-vada of Vaisheshikas, and Parinama-vada of Samkhya. Even scientific theories like multiverse and gradual evolution of life on earth can be seen being enunciated in texts like Yoga Vasishta. Yoga-Vashishta is a book of Hindu philosophy, especially famous as a manual of Advaita Vedanta, which describes the instructions given by Sage Vashishta to Lord Rama. Subhash Kak, in his book “The Wishing Tree”, quotes two verses from the text, speaking about evolution.
In 6.2.59, Yoga Vashishta notes:
|“I saw reflected in that consciousness the image of countless universes. I saw countless creations though they did not know of one another’s existence. Some were coming into being, others were perishing, all of them had different shielding atmospheres (from five to thirty-six atmospheres). There were different elements in each, they were inhabited by different types of beings in different stages of evolution.. (In) some there was apparent natural order in others there was utter disorder, in some there was no light and hence no time-sense.”|
In 6.1, the text further notes:
|“I remember that once upon a time there was nothing on this earth, neither trees and plants, nor even mountains. For a period of eleven thousand years the earth was covered by lava. In those days there was neither day nor night below the polar region: for in the rest of the earth neither the sun nor the moon shone. Only one half of the polar region was illumined. Then demons ruled the earth. They were deluded, powerful and prosperous, and the earth was their playground. Apart from the polar region the rest of the earth was covered with water. And then for a very long time the whole earth was covered with forests, except the polar region. Then there arose great mountains, but without any human inhabitants. For a period of ten thousand years the earth was covered with the corpses of the demons.”|
This presence of multiple and diverse accounts of origination and evolution of the universe and of life in Hindu tradition, as well as the fact that Hinduism does not posit origination of the universe as a one-time historical event, but instead as an eternal cycle of creation-destruction, which perpetually continuous to happen at different levels- physical, psychological, social, and cosmic- is the reason why there has never been an opposition in the Hindu tradition to modern scientific theories, be it big bang or Darwin’s evolution. Instead, Hindu tradition and society have accommodated modern scientific theories on origination as one among many alternatives available to people for exploration with many Hindus subscribing to Darwin’s evolution of humans at a physical level, all the while also subscribing to Vedantic evolution of the Universe.
One of the best example for such an accommodation and in some sense a synthesis of Darwin’s notion of physical and biological evolution with Hindu Vedic notion of spiritual evolution was done by Sri Aurobindo. Between 1920 and 1921, Aurobindo wrote a series of essays in his monthly journal Arya on the issue of evolution. In these essays, Aurobindo raised several problematic issues with Darwinian evolution. For example, in his essay “Involution and Evolution”, he notes:
|“The Western idea of evolution is the statement of a process of formation, not an explanation of our being. Limited to the physical and biological data of Nature, it does not attempt except in a summary or a superficial fashion to discover its own meaning, but is content to announce itself as the general law of a quite mysterious and inexplicable energy. Evolution becomes a problem in motion which is satisfied to work up with an automatic regularity its own puzzle, but not to work it out, because, since it is only a process, it has no understanding of itself, and, since it is a blind perpetual automatism of mechanical energy, it has neither an origin nor an issue. It began perhaps or is always beginning; it will stop perhaps in time or is always somewhere stopping and going back to its beginnings, but there is no why, only a great turmoil and fuss of a how to its beginning and its cessation; for there is in its acts no fountain of spiritual intention, but only the force of an unresting material necessity. The ancient idea of evolution was the fruit of a philosophical intuition, the modern is an effort of scientific observation. Each as enounced misses something, but the ancient got at the spirit of the movement where the modern is content with a form and the most external machinery. The Sankhya thinker gave us the psychological elements of the total evolutionary process, analysed mind and sense and the subtle basis of matter and divined some of the secrets of the executive energy, but had no eye for the detail of the physical labour of Nature. He saw in it too not only the covering active evident Force, but the concealed sustaining spiritual entity, though by an excess of the analytic intellect, obsessed with its love of trenchant scissions and symmetrical oppositions, he set between meeting Soul and Force an original and eternal gulf or line of separation. The modern scientist strives to make a complete scheme and institution of the physical method which he has detected in its minute workings, but is blind to the miracle each step involves or content to lose the sense of it in the satisfied observation of a vast ordered phenomenon. But always the marvel of the thing remains, one with the inexplicable wonder of all existence– even as it is said in the ancient Scripture.”|
But, these essays not only highlighted the problematic areas in Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also laid a framework for accommodating and integrating into Hindu worldview. As Rod Hemsell, notes in his book “The Philosophy of Evolution”:
|“This dichotomy of approaches the spiritual and material, or philosophic and scientific constitutes the basis of the critique with which Sri Aurobindo began his philosophical endeavor to synthesize Eastern and Western thought on the basis of a deep reflection upon both scientific and spiritual truths. He sought a synthesis and a method by which to handle not only the problems inherent in the theory of evolution and the scientific method, but also a way to unify the basic principles of the structures of consciousness and the cosmos, as a solution to the two types of problem that we have identified the need for a more adequate understanding and explanation of the phenomena of nature, and the need to discover and develop a power of consciousness better equipped to attain such knowledge. In other words, he sought to advance both the subjective (knowing) and the objective (known) realms of knowledge.”|
Modern interpretations of the Hindu concept of Dashavataras – the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, which starts with an incarnation as a fish, followed by tortoise, followed by boar, half human- half animal, dwarf, and finally as human – as a metaphor for Darwin’s evolution of species is another example of Hindu accommodation and synthesis. David Frawley nicely summarizes the modern Hindu response to modern scientific theory of evolution:
|“So if someone asks, ‘Do Hindus believe in evolution?’”: the answer is that Hindu thought is based on an evolution of consciousness. While this does not exclude an evolution of form, such as science proposes, it places that in the context of a greater development.”|
Contrary to this, we see a fierce and at times ugly competition with and opposition to science in the Abrahamic societies, including the continued debate between Creationists and Evolutionists.
The notion of multi-dimensional eternal cycle of creation-destruction is so deeply rooted in the Hindu psyche that they imitate and recreate this cycle in not only their sacred activities like Yajnas, but also in their mundane activities like building a stage for a theater-plays or a mandapa for a marriage. Even the Hindu texts like Mahabharata have been composed in a manner that reflects this cosmic cycle. Vishwa Adluri notes that “the Mahābhārata is always ending and always beginning” and the epic is self-conscious about its “imitation of the structure of cyclical time”.
The questions that would then arise are, why would the Hindu texts and the tradition so meticulously provide different accounts of origination of the man and the universe? Why is the concept of Srishti-Laya so deeply embedded in the Hindu psyche? Since, Hinduism does not posit a historical one-time event as the beginning of everything and instead conceives of the multiplicity of universes undergoing origination and dissolution perpetually, why even go into the trouble to enunciating these different processes of Srishti?
To this, the extraordinary teacher, Gaudapadachaya provides an answer in his Mandukya Karika. In verse 42 of Alaatashaanti-prakarana, he observes: “Instruction about creation has been imparted by the wise for the sake of those who, from the facts of experience and adequate behaviour, vouch for the existence of substantiality, and who are ever afraid of the birthless entity.” Again in verse 15 of Advaita-prakarana, he says: “The creation that has been multifariously set forth with the help of the examples of earth, gold, sparks, etc., is merely by way of generating the idea (of oneness); but there is no multiplicity in any way”, and further notes that people are of superior, medium and inferior intellect and only for people with medium and inferior competency that meditation etc., which reinforces creation as a positive entity have been taught (Verse 3.16), while for those with superior powers of discrimination, non-origination of the universe is obvious. Adi Shankaraharya in his commentary on these verses clarify that the purpose of these accounts of origination of the universe is to generate the ideas of oneness of the individual self and the supreme self. He further notes that these diverse creation accounts have been enunciated to help those with inferior discriminative intellect, who are unable to perceive non-dual, infinite and birthless Self. He writes: “That creation has been preached as a means to an end (for generating firm discrimination) under the idea: ‘Let them accept it for the time being. But in the course of practicing Vedanta, the discriminating knowledge about the birthless and non-dual Self will arise in them spontaneously.’”
Guadapadacharya himself notes that different people adhere to different ideas about creation and reality. While some posit creation from elements, some posit reality as being consisting of twenty-four categories; while some consider deities they worship as the only reality, some others consider senses itself as the ultimate reality; while creationists call creation as the reality, knowers of dissolution consider it also as reality. Gaudapadacharya notes that all these ideas “are forever imagined on the Self (Verse 2.28)”. He adds: “Anyone to whom a teacher may show a particular object (as the reality) sees that alone. And that thing, too, protects him by becoming identified with him. That absorption leads to self-identity (with the object of attention) (Verse 2.29).” But, the highest truth is that “There is no dissolution, no origination, none in bondage, none aspiring for liberation, and none liberated (Verse 2.32).” When ascertained from the standpoint of the Self, this universe does not continue to be distinct from the Self. Nor does it exist independent of the Self. There is simply no real origination of the Universe. “The birthless Self becomes differentiated (as universe) through Maya (as appearance), and it does so in no other way than this (3.19).”
In short, the purpose of the variegated discourse on origination present in Hindu tradition is to facilitate people who are attached to body and mind to purify their minds by anchoring themselves to the universe and performing the required duties and devotion, such that they can eventually attain the truth of non-origination and realize the non-dual infinite Atman/Brahman. From the standpoint of the highest truth of non-origination, the diverse accounts of origination are merely ideas derived and reinforced from different Pramanas, be it Shabda pramana or modern scientific evidence. These accounts do not have any standing as far as the Self is concerned and their status with respect to reality is same as the status of the universe itself: Mithya or that which is neither absolutely real, nor absolutely unreal, but only has a temporary appearance. In other words, the concern for the origination of the universe are purely a concern of the vyavaharika or transactional plane of existence and as such, people are free to adhere to any of the diverse accounts that appeal to them and are conducive to their spiritual emancipation. Fanatical insistence for any one account of Srishti as the absolute truth is thus quite antithetical to the Hindu concerns.
As Ramana Maharshi says:
“Various accounts are given in books. But is there creation? Only if there is creation do we have to explain how it came about.
We may not know about all these theories but we certainly know that we exist.
Why not know the ‘I’ and then see if there is a creation?”
Adluri, V. (2011). Frame Narratives and Forked Beginnings: Or, How to Read the Ādiparvan. Journal of Vaishnava Studies.
Frawley, D. (2012). Evolution: A Hindu Perspective. Hindu Human Rights.
Gambhirananda (Tr). (2012). Eight Upanishads with the commentary of Shankaracharya.
Ganeshan, PS. (2018). Dasavatara: The Hindu theory of evolution. Times of India.
Hemsell, R. (2017).The Philosophy of Evolution
Kak, S. (2015).The Wishing Tree: Presence and Promise of India.
Knapp, S. (2005). The Heart of Hinduism: The Eastern Path to Freedom, Empowerment and Illumination.
Navaratna, S (Tr). (2011). Manusmṛti.
Ramana Maharshi on Creation. Retrieved January 24, 2018, from http://www.kheper.net/topics/Vedanta/Ramana_on_creation.html
Sreekrishna, K and Ravikumar, H. (2015). Srishti: Songs of Creation from the Vedas.
Sridhar, N. (2018). How Hindus Recreate Creation. Sirf News.
Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (Bhāgavata Purāṇa). Retrieved January 23, 2018, from http://www.vedabase.com/en/sb
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