Cosmology: Hindu Cosmology
COSMOLOGY: HINDU COSMOLOGY
Hindu tradition possesses one of the richest and most continually evolving cosmologies in the global culture. From the most ancient Indian religious compositions, the Vedas, to contemporary twenty-first-century Indian theories combining science and religion, time and space have been lavishly narrated and meticulously calculated. Moreover moral, social, and philosophical meanings underlie these cosmologies in compelling ways.
This article will focus on six major frames for Hindu cosmology: the Vedic, Upaniṣadic, epic, Purāṇic, non-Sanskritic, and contemporary scientific-philosophical. Although through the millennia Hindu thinkers have dramatically redrawn notions of time, space, and person, they also share a wealth of common imagery: the reciprocal effects between natural and human affairs, the central idea of a cycle, and the divisions of space into particular realms and spheres. Each new cosmology does not completely replace the old but stands alongside of it as yet another cosmological option.
The Vedas and Brāhmaṇas are texts that existed before the idea of "Hinduism" per se emerged as a world religion. Present scholarly consensus puts the earliest date of the Vedas at 1500 bce, but there remains debate on the topic that might place the Vedas earlier. The Brāhmaṇas are placed around 900 bce. These texts were almost entirely oral, guarded by the priestly Brahmanic tradition as the basic supporting texts of the sacrifice. The cosmology of the Vedas speaks of the cosmos as Father Sky (Dyaus Pitṛ) and Earth (Pṛthivī). In other texts the cosmos is divided into three realms: bhūr (earth), bhuvaḥ (air), and svaḥ (heaven). The sacrifice and not the gods is considered the source of time, space, and all things that make up the universe. The Agnicayana, or the building of the fire altar, as well as many other forms of sacrifice are viewed in the Brāhmaṇa texts as symbolic reconstructions of the cosmos. Moreover the right placement of sacrificial implements and correct chanting of mantras allows the unimpeded turning of the year, the months, and the seasons as well as the correct placement of the three realms. At times cosmological thinking is so present and deeply assumed in Vedic texts that the "earthly realm" (as opposed to the other realms) is simply referred to as iha, "here."
Following from above, the basic form of cosmological space is the sacrificial arena. However, many of the Vedic gods, such as Agni, the fire god, have three different forms corresponding to the three Vedic realms. These "realms" are not only spatial but can also be described as mental states of mind: loka, or world, in its earliest meanings, can mean the "freedom to exist unimpeded" or "expansiveness" as much as it can mean a physical location. Yet these three realms are not the only form of imagined space: at death, the Vedic funeral hymns assert, the various elements within a person are scattered to various parts of the natural world. Alternatively the person can go to the realm of Yama, the overlord of the dead.
The sacrificial world understood time as a kind of simple cycle in which the year, the months, and the day are products of the work of the sacrifice. The passing of time is also homologized with death, and in later periods both death and the year were created by Prajāpati, the "Lord of Creatures," who also gave instructions about the correct procedures of the sacrifice. If one sacrificed well and long enough, one attained status oneself as an ancestor deity to be propitiated by other living sacrificers on earth. Therefore once one attained this status, the Vedic texts express a wish to avoid a "re-death." In addition Vedic texts show a high awareness of the motion and rhythm of the sun, moon, and stars and imagine them in a variety of colorful ways: the sun as a horse crossing the sky in a chariot, night and the dawn as rivalrous sisters, and so on. There is evidence that astronomical knowledge, such as the marking of the lunar asterisms, might well have been fairly advanced, even at this early stage of known religious history.
Vedic Person and Morality
In one famous Vedic hymn (Ṛgveda 10:90), which proved to be influential in a number of later Hindu schools of thought, the universe itself is understood as a cosmic person (Puruṣa). This Puruṣa is sacrificed in a primordial ritual procedure, and from parts of his body emerge the various creatures of the earth, elements of time and space, elements of the sacrifice, and most importantly categories of the social world, called varṇa. These four varṇa s (brahmin priest; kṣatriya warrior; vaiśya agriculturalist or trader; and śūdra servant) become the basis of social organization expressed in later legal and religious texts. The model earthly Vedic person is one who studies the Vedas, sacrifices, and tends to the sacrificial fires and therefore becomes ritually and morally responsible for the cosmos.
And yet such a person is also a seeker. Ṛgveda 10:90 ends with a philosophical paradox: "with the sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice." This enigma also sets the tone for much of Vedic cosmology: acceptance of multiple versions of creation; Vedic cosmology is questioning and searching, not doctrinal or creedal in nature. One of the most famous cosmological hymns, the Nasadīya hymn (Ṛgveda 10:129), speaks of the world beginning from nothingness, where "the One breathed, windless," and then coming into existence through the power of heat. Desire is the primal seed, and the sages create by stretching a cord across the void. Yet even this spare, poetic cosmology ends with a query:
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen? … perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not—the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows perhaps he does not know. (O'Flaherty, 1981, pp. 25–26)
While the activity of sacrifice is still presumed in the period of composition of the Upaniṣadic texts, the object of sacrificial knowledge is no longer the actual procedures of the sacrifice or the gods per se but a new force called brahman. Brahman is thought of as the power behind the sacrifice, and as the Upaniṣadic thought developed, it was described as the power behind every living thing and every element in the universe. Brahman is "the Whole" (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2:5) and transcends even the gods. It also exists beyond all known things in this world, and yet is also present within them as well. It is set apart from beings and yet dwelling within beings at the same time. This basic identification between the selves of beings and brahman leads to the famous Upaniṣadic equation that the self (ātman) is the same as the power behind the universe (brahman). As the sage Yājn̄avalkya puts it, "The self within all is this self of yours." The larger brahman is also spoken of as the ātman or "self" of the universe, thus giving rise to the poetic nineteenth-century translation "the World-Soul."
The earliest Upaniṣads probably originated around 600 to 500 bce and were composed in prose. They shared a common focus on many topics, such as the nature of brahman, the nature of sacrificial speech and the verses, the various forms of breath, and the homologization of parts of the body to the powers in the universe. The teaching of the five fires as the essence of the major parts of the cosmos (e.g., fire as man, woman, and the three worlds) is especially distinctive in these early prose compositions. The later Upaniṣads are composed in verse and develop the theme of brahman into a theistic rather than monistic conception. They also focus on the idea of liberation through meditation. Both are themes common in later Purāṇic cosmologies.
Many of the Upaniṣads continue the idea of the three worlds in the Vedas but add to this cosmology an inner, more existential meaning. When the student Aśvala asks how many oblations there will be, the sage Yājn̄avalkya responds that each oblation has its own modality and is therefore connected to the specific world that shares that modality. The oblations that flare will win the world of the gods, for the world shines that way. The oblations that overflow (atinedante) will go to the world of the ancestors, for that world is "over above" (ati). The oblations that lie down (adhiśerate) will go to this human world, for that world is here below (adha).
This imagery continues a basic cosmology that one sees in earlier Vedic texts of the worlds of the gods, the fathers, and the ancestors. However, it attributes, through etymologies, different modes of being to each of the offerings and each of worlds. In other passages the three-fold world is described in a progression of size from one to sixty-four, a numerology that is recurrent in many later cosmological texts. Finally, in other passages the three levels (bhūr, bhuvaḥ, svaḥ) of the Vedic world are expanded into seven realms, many of the additional realms again connoting "modes of being": mahas, janas, tapas (meditative heat), and satyam (truth).
The second kind of Upaniṣadic space is the body itself. Each of the basic sacrificial procedures, present from the earliest Vedic ritual texts, becomes homologized with the individual breathing body as well as the world itself. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and other Upaniṣads the sacrificial fires are seen as part of the inner workings of the body; the role of the Adhvaryu priest is identified with their eyes and the process of sight itself, and this sight can see the nature of the whole world (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3:1:5). In other passages it is not only the cosmology of the sacrifice that is given to the body but also the cosmology of the entire world and its topography. For instance, rivers of the world are identified as the rivers contained within the body (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1:1:1; Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 1:4:5), the eye of the world is also the sight of the body (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 1:7:4), and so on.
The third kind of Upaniṣadic space is that of brahman itself. Brahman is also spoken of as a formulation of truth—a truth that is to be attained by wise men and women who have practiced meditation and focused on the forest teachings for a long time. Brahman is the highest object of the teachings on hidden connections—an object rooted in austerity and the knowledge of the self (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 1:9). The imagery here is not simply that of a truth to be attained but of an abode in its own right, where the sun never sets nor rises (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 3:11). Similarly other Upaniṣads also describe brahman as a stainless realm (Praśna Upaniṣad 1.16) in its own right—a world of unending peace, an ancient formulation that is heard in the heavenly abodes.
UpaniṢadic Time: The Cycle of Birth and Death
One sees emerging in the Upaniṣads a theory of death and birth that is strikingly different than the Vedic sacrificial fear of "re-death" (punarmṛtyu). The Upaniṣads contain the earliest records of what has been called saṃsāra, or the endless cycle of birth and death, as well as mokṣa, or the path that leads away from saṃsāra. The story of Jabālā is instructive on this point (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 3:4:1–4). Jabālā is ashamed that his native learning, gleaned at his father's knee, is not sufficient in the court to which he travels. He must learn an entirely new set of metaphors, in which each aspect of life (man, woman, semen, food) is said to be identical with the sacrificial fire. While such matters are not unusual for many sections of the Upaniṣads, the subsequent section is startlingly new. Those whose conduct is good but who choose to offer sacrifices in the village will go on the path of the moon and be reborn accordingly. Those who choose the path of the forest and the knowledge of brahman will go on the path of the sun and leave this life altogether. And those whose conduct is reprehensible will be reborn into a lesser, probably repugnant womb. In other accounts the two paths are described as the path of the gods (devayāna) and the path of the father (pitṛyāna).
UpaniṢadic Person and Morality
Despite their variations, the Upaniṣads all share the concept of a cycle of infinitely recurring births and deaths in which the nature of a rebirth depends upon a person's actions in life. The only way to escape this cycle of time is through knowledge of brahman, the infinite, which can be gained through slow and painstaking mastery of meditation under the guidance of a teacher. Each Upaniṣad had a different method for teaching this knowledge, but all used the basic imageries of the sacrifice to show the ways in which bodily processes and processes of awareness allowed the student to conceive of the sacrifice as going on inside his body. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3:1:8–10, Aśvala the hotṛ (a priest trained in sacrifice and sacrificial recitation), asks Yājn̄avalkya the teacher about how many deities will be used by the Brāhmaṇ priest to protect the sacrifice that day. He answers, "One, the mind." Yajn̄avalkya argues that this is possible because the mind is without limit, the all-gods are without limit, and the world one gains by it is also limitless. Thus the deities become identified with mind itself—and by implication the Brāhmaṇ priest, the controller of the sacrifice, can earn his authority through the machinations of his own mind. Finally, in discussing the hymns that are used in the sacrifice, Aśvala asks what these hymns are with respect to the "self-body" (ātman). Yājn̄avalkya replies that the hymn recited before the sacrifice is the out-breath, the hymn that accompanies the sacrifice the in-breath, and the hymn of praise the inter-breath.
The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad puts the relationship between self, body, and cosmos eloquently: "This self is the honey of all beings, and all beings are the honey of this self. The radiant and immortal person in the self and the radiant and immortal person connected with the body [here, also referred to as ātman ]—they are both one's self. It is the immortal; it is Brahman, it is the Whole" (2:5:9).
The two great Indian epics, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, were probably composed between 200 bce and 200 ce. Both of these narratives act as a kind of bridge between the worlds of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads and that of classical, Purāṇic Hinduism. This same period saw the development of the early Śāstras or legal texts, which also contain cosmological information. The cosmology of the epics and the early Śāstras incorporates an increasing systematization of the idea of samsaric time for the individual and expands the idea of the universe into one that dissolves and regenerates. Epic cosmology also incorporates the ideas of Sāṃkhya and Yoga philosophy, such as the "qualities," or guṇa s, that are inherent in all beings and elements in the universe. Such a cosmology involves an entirely new pantheon of gods, the triad of Viṣṇu, Śiva, and Brahmā, and the Devī, or goddess. These gods were probably part of the popular religious worlds of North India, even during the period of Vedic sacrificial practice. However, as sacrificial practice waned and the patronage of temples increased, these gods emerged as the larger, cosmological deities in their own right. Devotion (bhakti) toward these deities is also an emerging theme in the epics, in which the deity is seen as the creator and sustainer of the universe. The body of the deity is the frame of the cosmos, and time (also an agent of the deity) moves beings toward their final state.
At the basis of these ideas is an early Hindu philosophy called Sāṃkhya, which means "counting." In the sense that its aim is to enumerate everything in the universe, it could also be called a cosmology. According to Sāṃkhya, the universe evolves from a feminine "natural matter" and becomes entangled with the masculine puruṣa, which is an individual soul (and not to be confused with the earlier "cosmic person"). Thus in these entanglements twenty-four "evolutes" emerge, including the senses and the elements. Sāṃkhya is the basis of the practice of Yoga, whereby the yogin gradually extricates the soul from the evolutes of prakṛti. After eight stages, the soul realizes its eternal nature and is no longer subject to the laws of action (karma) or transmigration (saṃsāra). Time, however, is not an agent in itself. Sāṃkhya's ordering of the universe of prakṛti is generally not hierarchical, although one text—the Yoga Bhāṣya —sees the lower evolutes of prakṛti as the hells and the higher ones as the heavens. The extrication of the soul from prakṛti in the practice of Yoga is seen as the soul's movement toward the higher realms, and when it leaves the world altogether, it also dissolves it. On a smaller cosmological scale, Sāṃkhya Yoga philosophy contributes the basic idea that there are universal qualities or "guṇas" inherent in every element on earth. These guṇas are sattva (truth, light); rajas (passion, force) and tamas (weight, darkness) are inherent in every particle of the universe.
The epics and Dharmaśāstras and related texts of this period give an idea of how those heavens and netherworlds might be inhabited. In the Mahābhārata, Arjuna visits Śiva and obtains a weapon from him in one of his heavenly abodes; so too the gods dwelling in heaven remind Rāma of his duty toward his wife at the end of the Rāmāyaṇa. The great Mahābhārata heroes, the Paṇḍava brothers, also make ascents and descents to heaven and hell at the end of the great battle. Most importantly it is during this transitional period that one sees the intimation that the land of Bhārata is to be identified with Indian civilization and the entirety of the earth.
The Bhiṣmaparvan of the Mahābhārata (4–12) contains an entire depiction of the cosmos, which involves the beginnings of the devotional, or bhakti, tradition. So too the Śantiparvan introduces the idea of the division of time into kalpas and yugas, as does the Manu Smṛti, one of the more well-known legal Dharmaśāstric texts developed during this time. The epic texts also introduce explicit teachings on the doctrine of the avatāras, or "descents" of god. These avatāras appear at various points when time has lost its power to fight the demons and to restore the dharma, or moral order, of the universe. As early as the great Bhagavadgītā, or "Song of the Lord," contained in the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇa apparently refers to the notion of time and to the integration of the idea of the avatāra with that of the descending ages, or yugas. As Kṛṣṇa puts it:
Son of Bhārata, whenever there is a decline in dharma, and the absence of dharma increases, I create Myself. I come into being from age to age with the purpose of fixing dharma —as a refuge for those who do good and as a doom for those who do wrong. (4:7–8; in Patton, 2005)
Epic Person and Morality
Kṛṣṇa's words lead directly to a new understanding of the relationship between cosmology and the morality of the human world. That relationship is conceived of in terms of dharma (sacred role or duty). Kṛṣṇa is beyond time and space and yet at the same time incarnates himself in order to make sure that dharma is in the correct order and format. The cosmos is perceived as directly responsive to any change in the correct pattern of dharma. So too the reverse is the case: as one of the Dharmaśāstras argues, if one follows the dharma of hospitality toward a brahmin guest, one can gain various heavens depending upon the number of days the guest stays in one's home. Entertaining a brahmin guest forever allows one to attain svargaloka.
The medieval Hindu texts called Purāṇas ("of the ancient times") contain Hindu cosmology at its most exuberant and efflorescent. Emerging during the early first millennium ce as a genre in their own right, Purāṇas were sponsored by each temple or kingdom and usually focused on a particular deity, which gave its own account of the world and its destruction. In the Purāṇas, the basic themes introduced in the epics and the Śāstras are elaborated upon imagistically, poetically, and mathematically. Moreover the theme of bhakti, or devotion, which was dramatically introduced in the epics and Yoga texts, becomes paramount.
Many Purāṇas, including the relatively early Viṣṇu Purāṇa, describe a flat disk of earth, which is itself composed of a series of circles. These are in fact seven concentric islands that keep doubling in size as one moves outward. (The first is an actual circle, and the concentric islands are ring-shaped.) The islands are separated from each other by a series of oceans, each of which has the width of the island it encircles. The center-most island is the most well known and is called Jambudvīpa (Rose Apple Island). And at the center of the world, the golden mountain called Meru anchors the entire arrangement. Meru is unusual in that it is an inversion of the usual mountains and points downward. Jambudvīpa is further divided into nine varṣa s, or regions, that consist of mountain ranges. The lines are latitudinal, running from east to west.
The region of Jambudvīpa that is the farthest north is called Uttarakuru and may well be Kurukṣetra, where the central battle of the Mahābhārata took place. Moving southward, one encounters the other varṣas: Hiranmaya, Ramyaka, Ketumāla, Ilavṛta, Bhadrāśya, Harivarṣa, Kiṃpuruṣa, and Bhārata. The final region, Bhārata, is assumed by many scholars to be India, as this is the same name for India in the twenty-first century. In the Purāṇic cosmograph, however, it is a karmabhūmi, or realm where the laws of karma apply. As such one can only attain mokṣa, or liberation from these laws, in this region. Bhārata is also the only place on earth where rain falls. Bhārata itself is divided into nine sections. Moreover the celestial river Ganges also divides into seven branches—the traditional seven rivers found in ancient Vedic texts.
The full series of seven islands then begins with Jambudvīpa, whose diameter is 100,000 yojana s. Jambudvīpa forms an actual circle with a radius of fifty thousand yojana s. (A yojana is a word that occurs as early as the Ṛgveda; it has been variously measured as two, four, five, or nine English miles, although it also has an etymological link to Yoga and yuga that makes its connotations metaphysical.) The rest of the ring-shaped islands are named as follows: Plakṣadvīpa, Sālmaladvīpa, Kuśadvīpa, Krauṇcadvīpa, Śākadvīpa, and Puṣkaradvīpa. All the islands are named after some species of the trees and plants that grow on them. Each concentric ring island is double the width of the previous one, so that the outermost, Puṣkaradvīpa, ends up with a width of 6.4 million yojana s. Finally, just as Jambudvīpa is divided into nine varṣa s, or regions, of mountain ranges, so too each of the five inner ring-shaped islands also is divided into seven mountain-range varṣa s. The outer most island, Puṣkaradvīpa, is delineated by a ring of mountains called Mānassottara.
The oceans that separate the ring islands from one another have the same width as the diameter they surround, with the same expansion of measurement up to 6.4 million for the last ocean. Their names are drawn from the substance of the oceans themselves: Lavaṇoda (Salt Ocean), Ikṣura (Molasses Ocean), Suroda (Wine Ocean), Ghṛtoda (Ghee Ocean), Dadhyoda (Curd Ocean), Kṣīroda (Milk Ocean), and Svādūdaka (Freshwater Ocean). The Freshwater Ocean flows beyond the last ring island, Puṣkaradvīpa, and separates it from the end of the universe (lokasaṃsthiti). The realm at the end of the universe is a golden realm that divides the world from the nonworld, similarly to the way in which being and nonbeing are distinguished even in the earliest Vedic cosmologies. The golden realm also has a mountain, Lokakāloka (World and non-World). After this mountain is a region of perpetual darkness, where, the texts seem to suggest, only the elements of earth, wind, air, and fire exist. After that realm is the shell of the egg of Brahmā, which envelopes the universe in its entirety. The entire diameter of this universe is said to be 500 million yojana s.
What of the stars and other heavenly bodies? The stars move around Mount Meru in a circular direction, with the North Star (dhruva) as their pivot. Below them lies the flat disk of the earth. The sun, moon, and planets move about in chariots drawn by horses, as was the case even in the earliest Vedic texts. They are attached to the North Star by bands of air that allow them to travel in their proper orbits.
The Hindu cosmograph, with its conical center, Mount Meru, and the chariot of the sun and disk of stars circulating above the disk of concentric islands and oceans may be based on a projection of the celestial sphere onto a flat surface. In such an analysis the circle of the sun is the mythographic expression of the circle of the ecliptic. Mount Meru represents the projection of the celestial Tropic of Cancer, while the Mānassottara Mountain represents the projection of the Tropic of Capricorn. The prominence of the North Star, the conspicuous absence of the south polar star, and the stories about the exile of Agastya (Canopus) to the Southern Hemisphere to preserve the cosmograph all support the idea that the Hindu cosmograph is a northern, planispheric projection of the sort used to construct such instruments as the astrolabe.
As for a vertical cosmology, there are seven worlds with the same names as those of the Upaniṣads, although the Purāṇas make considerable elaboration on these. The bhūrloka contains the cosmograph of the seven islands outlined above, with Bhārata as the only land where the law of karma applies and liberation is possible. Most significantly, there are seven Pātalas, or netherworlds: Atala, Vitala, Nitala, Gabhastimat, Mahātala, Sutala, and Pātala. Below these are twenty-eight hell realms.
The bhuvaṣḥ, or intermediate realm, is the realm of the sun, which moves through its annual course in its chariot. Above this is the svarloka, which contains, in ascending order, the moon; its twenty-seven or twenty-eight Nakṣatras, or houses of the moon; Mercury (Buddha); Venus (Śukra); Mars (Angārika); Jupiter (Bṛhaspati); Saturn (Śani); and the Seven Ṛṣis (the Great Bear) and Dhruva (the North star, mentioned above).
The three basic realms of bhur, bhuvaḥ, and svaḥ are described as kṛtika —meaning they are "created" worlds and therefore transitory. They are the regions where consequences are experienced and renewed with every kalpa. In these three realms the fruits of karma that are acquired in Bhārata manifest themselves, and souls are reborn to enjoy these fruits. These are the enjoyment realms (bhogabhūmi) as opposed to the karmabhūmi of Bhārata. Above the svarloka is the realm of mahas, which is considered a mixed realm because it is a deserted by beings at the end of kalpa but is not destroyed. Finally, the three highest realms—janas, tapas, and satyam —are described as akṛittika: that which is uncreated. They perish only at the end of the life of Brahmā.
The Purāṇas divide time into such components as yugas, as four age cycles, and kalpa s, which are a day and a night of Brahmā. The Purāṇas provide a very thorough analysis of these components. Together with doctrines concerning the various destructions (pralayas), they are the glue that holds this cosmology together and provides it with a coherent drama of salvation. Indeed Viṣṇu Purāṇa asserts it is not space but time that constitutes the body of the deity.
Hindu divisions of time are as follows. Fifteen "twinklings of the eye" make a kāṣṭhās, or one kalā; and thirty kalās equal one muhūrtta. Thirty muhūrttas constitute a day and a night of mortals; thirty such days make a month, which is divided into two halves (waxing and waning). Six months form an ayana, and two ayanas compose a year.
The southern ayana is a night and the northern a day of the gods. Twelve thousand divine years, each comprising 360 such days, constitute the period of the yugas (caturyuga). The kṛtayuga consists of four thousand divine years, the tretāyuga of three thousand, the dvāparayuga of two thousand, and the kaliyuga of one thousand. The period that precedes a yuga is called a sandhyā; it lasts for as many hundred years as there are thousands in the yuga. The sandhyānsa, at the end of the yuga, is of similar duration. Together the four yugas constitute a kalpa. A thousand kalpas is a day of Brahmā, and fourteen Manus, or descendants of man, reign during that time period, which is known as Manvantara. At the end of a day of Brahmā, the universe is consumed by fire, and its dissolution occurs. Brahmā then sleeps for a night of equal duration. Three hundred and sixty such days and nights constitute a year of Brahmā, and one hundred such years equal his entire life (mahākalpa). One parārddha, or half his life, has expired.
The various pralayas epitomize the agency of time by moving the soul—and the universe—from its current state to its eventual salvation. The Purāṇas distinguish four types of dissolution, or pralaya, each reversing the process of creation at different levels. These include:
- Nitya pralaya, or physical death of the individual caught in the cycle of transmigration;
- Ātyantika pralaya, or spiritual liberation (mokṣa) ;
- Prākṛta pralaya, or dissolution of the elements at the end of the life of Brahmā;
- Naimittika pralaya, or occasional dissolution associated with the cycles of yugas and descents of avatāras.
Yet calculations of time also had a meditative quality: the contemplation of infinity, or the largest number next to infinity, was meant to be close to a vision of God. The Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa tells the well-known story of the dialogue between Viṣṇu and Indra. In the form of a young boy, Viṣṇu tells Indra that a parade of ants crawling on the earth have all had lives as Indras—each ruling over their own solar systems in different ages.
PurĀṆic Person and Morality
In the Purāṇic texts, the four yugas progress as a kind of inevitable decay in the moral quality of the universe. The Kūrma Purāṇa (1:27, 16–57; 28:1–7) states it elaborately. The text describes the meditational bliss, lack of self interest, and natural habitat of human beings in the first yuga, kṛtayuga; the arising of pleasure and greed in the tretāyuga; the lack of firm resolve and the introduction of war, death, and suffering in the dvāparayuga; and the rampant hunger, fear, and inversion of social order in the final present age of the kaliyuga. Happiness, beauty, homes in the forest, and food dropping from trees gradually give way to the moral decay of the world and then to the development of practices aimed at liberation from such decay.
The kaliyuga is considered the worst of the four yugas —the moment right before the final destruction and renewal of the universe. The Purāṇas and many contemporary Hindu thinkers understand the present to be the kaliyuga. The decadence, greed, and confusion of social categories is both inevitable and part of the turning of the cycles of time, and yet the Purāṇas and other Hindu texts exhort each individual to be the moral exception in this period of decay.
It is important to note, however, that the extended discussion of cosmology above is based mainly on the Sanskrit textual tradition and that there are many important cosmologies within Hinduism that may depart from these basic ideas in significant ways. In South India, for example, Tamil, Telugu, and Karnatak traditions have developed complex and sophisticated classical cosmologies of their own. Such texts focus on the meaning of the temple and the city surrounding it as a center and origin of the world and on a regional deity as its creator. The temple spires and surrounding tanks frequently function in ways similar to, and are sometimes even compared with, Mount Meru and its surrounding islands in the Sanskrit texts. So too South Indian texts describe deities like Murukaṉ (Murugan) residing in these temples as if they were a kind of paradise created at the beginning of the world. At a village level, guardian deities of ponds, wells, and the intersections of roads are also credited with cosmological powers and roles in creation.
Finally, the ādivasis, or "tribal" communities of India, such as the Muṇḍa, Santal, and others, also possess unique cosmologies, some of which incorporate Hindu deities such as Rāma, others of which involve completely separate deities who have created and preside over the natural world and look after the welfare of human beings. Many tribal cosmologies incorporate narratives of the victory of good over evil. The Muṇḍa, for example, tell the story of Singbonga, who tried to stop the iron smelters from working as it was causing pollution in the universe. When they refused, he had to destroy them in order to keep the world safe. So too the Kokna, Bhil, and Varli peoples understand that before humans the world was filled with rakṣasas, or demons; Rāma and Sītā then passed through the area, killed the demons, and gave birth to humans.
Science and Cosmology
Any discussion of Hindu cosmology would be empty without a discussion of astronomy and related sciences. As mentioned previously, the astronomical sciences appear as early as the Vedic period in the form of Jyotiṣḥśāstra, or "the science of light." Though there is considerable debate as to the range and nature of astronomical knowledge, it is known that the lunar mansions are mentioned in the Brāhmaṇas and that the Hindu science of calculation began with the cosmological Vedic altars and developed into the elaborate calculations of the yugas, kalpas, and mahākalpas in the Purāṇas. Jyotiṣḥśāstra encouraged thinkers to assign dates to the grand conjunctions of the middle planets at Aries, and the date February 18 (or 19) of 3101 (or 3102) bce is frequently cited as marking the beginning of the kaliyuga. One astronomical text, in the Viṣṇudharmottara Purāṇa (2:166–174), is the earliest of this genre and is the basis of the Brahmāpakṣa. Together with the Aryapakṣa and the Ardharatrikapakṣa, these three texts form the canonical schools of Hindu astronomy.
The great astronomer-sage Āryabhaṭa (fifth–sixth centuries ce) calculated the rotations of the earth and the sun in terms of the yugas. His treatises (siddhantas) sketch his mathematical, planetary, and cosmic theories and include a sine table, astronomical computations, divisions of time, and rules for computation for eclipses as well as the longitude of planets. Among the other theorists, Varāhamihira (sixth century ce), Brahmagupta (seventh century ce), Bhāskara (twelfth century ce), and Mādhava (fourteenth century ce) all gave calculational and astronomical theories that contributed to overall ideas about the universe, such as the rotational powers of the planets and the centrality of the sun.
Indeed by the time of Bhāskara (c. twelfth century ce) the old Purāṇic cosmology was being questioned with the construction of a different model of the solar system. In the debates one can detect a conflict between the Purāṇic cosmology and the cosmology of the Jyotiṣas. There are some discussions that remind one of the contemporary cosmological debate between creationism and the Big Bang. For instance, the astronomical writers asked: If, as some of the Purāṇas state, a tortoise is holding up the earth, then what being or substance might be supporting that tortoise? Or if one is assuming the gigantic height of Mount Meru and a flat, disk-like earth, then would not one be able to see Mount Meru from every point on the disk of the earth?
Around 1200 ce al-Bīrūnī, an Arab astronomer and translator, noted the debates and problems of Purāṇic cosmology that were present in the discussions of Indian astronomers. Relatedly it is clear that there was a great deal of scientific collaboration between Hindus and Muslims in Mughal India, especially in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jaipur, where the appropriate description of the cosmos was argued out at great length.
Finally, in the contemporary period various more and less controversial attempts have been made to correlate scientific advances with Hindu cosmology. In the more controversial cases textual exegetes argue about whether it is appropriate to view certain descriptions of "vehicles" in the epics as referring to space travelers or whether the ancient word yojana, mentioned above, refers to the speed of light. In a more speculative and less controversial vein Yoga theorists draw parallels between the theory of the three guṇas and James C. Maxwell's theories of electromagnetism; between the relation of space and time in Sāṃkhya theory and the theory of relativity; between the idea of the cosmic egg and the theory of curved space in the general theory of relativity; and so on.
Many contemporary philosophers and historians, such as S. Radhakrishnan, B. K. Motilal, A. N. Balslev, and W. R. Kloetzli, have written of the parallels (not equivalencies) between scientific and Hindu philosophical thinking. The Hindu philosophical school of Nyāya Vaiśeṣika and its views on the atom's role in the universe is one particularly salient example. Finally, the cosmological writings of astrophysicist Jayant Viṣṇu Narlikar land more squarely in the world of physical science and cosmology. Considered a leading expert and defender of the steady state cosmology against the more popular Big Bang cosmology, Narlikar has also drawn some intriguing parallels with Hindu mythology—not in order to "prove" the existence of scientific knowledge in ancient texts but rather to show the power of the cosmological imagination in both science and mythology. Many of the cosmological myths referred to above, involving expansion and contraction, the in-breathing and out-breathing of Brahmā, and so on, seem to involve metaphors of a "steady state" similar to Narlikar's physical and mathematical arguments in scientific cosmology.
General Works on Hindu Cosmologies
For a general overview of cosmology, the best resources are of course the original texts themselves. In translation, Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's Rig Veda (Harmondsworth, U.K., 1981) and Walter Maurer's Pinnacles of India's Past: Selections from the Rgveda (Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1986) both have good discussions of cosmogonic themes; Patrick Olivelle's introduction to his Upanisads (Oxford and New York, 1995) also has a good discussion. The classic treatment of Purāṇic cosmology remains Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. Van Buitenen's Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Purānas, rev. ed. (Philadelphia, 1995), which devotes entire sections to space and to time. The Bhagavadgītā is also an excellent resource for Hindu cosmological thinking, especially chapters 10 and 11. See Laurie Patton's translation of The Bhagavad Gita (Harmondsworth, U.K., 2005).
For treatment of the themes of the cycle of time, the end of the world, and the renewal of the world, one might consult three works: Horst Bürkle's "Geschichtliche Einmaligkeit und zyklische Wiederkehr," Internationale katholische Zeitschrift "Communio" 17, no. 4 (1988): 327–336; Michel Hulin's "Décadence et renouvellement: La doctrine des âge du monde dans l'hindouisme," in Der geheime Strom des Geschehens, edited by Rudolf Ritsema (Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1987), pp. 177–208; and Vasudha Narayanan's "Y51k and Still Counting: Some Hindu Views of Time," Hindu-Christian Studies Bulletin 12 (1999): 15–21. Mariasusai Dhavamony's "Hindu Eschatology," Studia Missionalia 32 (1983): 143–180, has a rather more Christian view. A little more updated in is theoretical perspective on "end of time" scenarios is Tom Forsthoefel's "Uses and Abuses of Apocalypticism in South Asia: A Creative Human Device," Journal of Dharma 26, no. 3 (2001): 417–430. For an integration of basic ritual themes and cosmological ideas, see Samarendra Saraf's "Hindu Ritual Idiom: Cosmic Perspective and Basic Orientations," in The Realm of the Extra-Human: Ideas and Actions, edited by Agehananda Bharati (The Hague, 1976), pp. 151–163. The locus classicus for the relationship between theodicy, or justice, and Hindu cosmology remains Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, Calif., 1976). There is also a series of more comparative treatments of Hindu cosmology that take on the themes of "worldview" and "nature." Neither term is indigenous to the Hindu texts, but nonetheless they are excellent starting points for the comparativist. One could begin with Heinrich von Stietencron's "Welt und Gottheit: Konzeptionen der Hindus," in Christentum und Weltreligionen, edited by Hans Küng, Josef Van Ess, and Heinrich von Stietencron (Munich, 1984), pp. 271–310. A. Syrkin's two-part series in Numen gives a nice discussion of the avatar in Hindu cosmology; see "The Salutary Descent," Numen 35, no. 1 (1988): 1–23 and no. 2 (1988): 213–237. Non-Western scholars have also contributed to efforts to think about cosmology comparatively and to engage Hindu themes—see, for example, G. P. Pokhariyal's "The Hindu View of God, Humanity, and Mother Nature," in God, Humanity, and Mother Nature, edited by Gilbert E. M. Ogutu (Nairobi, Kenya, 1992), pp. 165–171; and Tadakazu Yamada, James Dator, and Russell Schweickart's Cosmos, Life, Religion: Beyond Humanism (Tenri, Japan, 1988.)
Relatedly contemporary writing on the environment and Hindu cosmology blossomed in the last decade of the twentieth century. One of the most central authors, O. P. Dwivedi, began with his "Environmental Stewardship: Our Spiritual Heritage for Sustainable Development," Journal of Developing Societies 12, no. 2 (1996): 217–231. David R. Kinsley's "Reflections on Ecological Themes in Hinduism," Journal of Dharma 16, no. 3 (1991): 229–245, is also important. Following Dwivedi's initiative are Augustine Thottakara, ed., Eco-Dynamics of Religion: Thoughts for the Third Millennium (Bangalore, India, 2000); Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds., Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water (Cambridge, Mass., 2000); and Lance E. Nelson, ed., Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India (Albany, N.Y., 1999).
There is also a long tradition of scholarship that, while not specifically environmentalist, addresses the idea of the Hindu cosmos as the body of God. Many such works are comparative in nature, beginning with Ninian Smart's "God's Body," Union Seminary Quarterly Review 37 (1981): 51–59; Alex Wayman's "The Human Body as Microcosm in India, Greek Cosmology, and Sixteenth-Century Europe," History of Religions 22, N (1982): 172–190; Julius J. Lipner's "The World as God's 'Body': In Pursuit of Dialogue with Rāmānuja," Religious Studies 20 (1984): 145–161; and George A. Chalmers's "Rāmānuja and Alexander: The Concept of the Universe as the Body of God," Scottish Journal of Religious Studies 6, no. 1 (1985): 26–33. More recent work has connected the bodies of gods and goddesses with politics; see, for example, Konrad Meisig's "'Mutter Indien' (Bhāratamātā): Zur Personifizierung kosmologischer Vorstellungen im politischen Hinduismus," in Religion im Wandel der Kosmologien, edited by Dieter Zeller, pp. 281–285 (Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and New York, 1999). Kapila Vatsyayan's book series, "Prakriti" (Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts) contains a number of excellent collections of essays on cosmology by Indian and Western authors alike.
Finally, George Michell, The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meanings and Forms (London, 1977) and Hindu Art and Architecture (New York, 2000), and Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple (Delhi, 1976), remain the loci classici among examinations of the relationship between architecture and cosmology. However, more specific, local treatments with important theoretical implications include Anthony Good's "The Burning Question: Sacred and Profane Space in a South Indian Temple Town," Anthropos 94, nos. 1–3 (1999): 69–84; Adam Hardy's "The Hindu Temple: A Dynamic Microcosm," in Sacred Architecture in the Traditions of India, China, Judaism, and Islam, edited by Emily Lyle (Edinburgh, 1992), pp. 41–57; and K. R. Van Kooij's "The Concept of Cosmic Totality in the Ancient Art of India," in Approaches to Iconology, edited by Hans G. Kippenberg, L. P. van den Bosch, and L. Leertouwer (Leiden, 1986), pp. 37–49. Most compelling is Michael W. Meister's "Symbology and Architectural Practice in India," in Sacred Architecture in the Traditions of India, China, Judaism, and Islam, edited by Emily Lyle (Edinburgh, 1992).
Vedic and Upaniṣadic Cosmologies
Two early works by Sadashiv Ambadas Dange and Richard F. Gombrich, respectively, remain excellent resources for Vedic ritual cosmology. See Dange's "Cosmo-Sexualism in the Vedic Ritual," in Charudeva Shastri Felicitation Volume, edited by Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Triloki Nath, Satya Vrat, and Dharmendra Kumar Gupta (Delhi, 1974), pp. 23–44; and Gombrich's "Ancient Indian Cosmology," in Ancient Cosmologies, edited by Carmen Blacker and Michael Loewe (London, 1975), pp. 110–142. M. A. Mehendale's short "Sapta Devalokāh," in Charudeva Shastri Felicitation Volume, edited by Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Triloki Nath, Satya Vrat, and Dharmendra Kumar Gupta (Delhi, 1974), also gives a good basic introduction to the idea of the seven worlds. For more detailed, thematic studies of Vedic cosmology, see Marius Schneider's "Das Schöpfungswort in der vedischen Kosmologie," in Musicae Scientiae Collectanea: Festschrift Karl Gustav Fellerer zum 70. Geburtstag, edited by Heinrich Hüschen (Cologne, Germany, 1973), pp. 523–526, and his "Die Grundlagen der Kultsprache in der vedischen Kosmologie," in Sprache und Sprachverständnis in religiöser Rede: Zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Linguistik, edited by Thomas Michels and Ansgar Paus (Salzburg, Austria, 1973), pp. 13–60. Albrecht Wezler's "Thin, Thinner, Thinnest: Some Remarks on Jaiminīya Brāhmana 1:144," in India and Beyond: Aspects of Literature, Meaning, Ritual, and Thought: Essays in Honour of Frits Staal, edited by Dick Van Der Meij (Leiden, 1997), pp. 636–650, engages the important question of worldview in the Brāhmaṇa literature. Henk W. Bodewitz gives a good sense of how early Vedic themes might give rise to later Purāṇic ones in "Pits, Pitfalls, and the Underworld in the Veda," Indo-Iranian Journal 42, no. 3 (July 1999): 211–226. Moving forward to the Upaniṣads, Joel P. Brereton's excellent "Cosmographic Images in the Brhadāranyaka Upaniṣad," Indo-Iranian Journal 34 (1991): 1–17, gives a good specific case study of a single Upaniṣad that can be used as a launching point for the study of other Upaniṣads. For another integrative view of earlier and later texts, see Petteri Koskikallio's "When Time Turns: Yugas, Ideologies, Sacrifices," in Studia Orientalia 73, edited by Palva Heikki, Tapani Harviainen, Asko Parpola, and Harry Halén (Helsinki, Finland, 1994), pp. 253–271.
Epic and Purāṇic Cosmologies
John E. Michiner's Traditions of the Seven Ṛṣis (Delhi, 1981) gives an excellent overview of the various cycles of time in the Vedas, the epics, and the Purāṇas, especially the Ages of Manu and the role of the Vedic sages in creating and maintaining the cosmos. Also addressing both epic and Purāṇic understandings of time is R. K. Dwivedi's "A Critical Study of the Changing Social Order at Yuganta; or, the End of the Kali Age," in D. D. Kosambi Commemoration Volume, edited by Lallanji Gopal, Jai Prakash Singh, and Nisar Ahmad (Varanasi, India, 1977), pp. 276–297. Wendell C. Beane's "Cosmological Structure of Mythical Time: Kālī-Sakti," History of Religions 13 (1973): 54–83, connects these time cycles with the goddess concept of shakti. Tracy Pintchman builds on these insights in "Gender Complementarity and Gender Hierarchy in Purānic Accounts of Creation," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 66 (1998): 257–282. For conceptions of place, Ian W. Mabbett's "The Symbolism of Mount Meru," History of Religions 23 (1983): 64–83, is a good introduction to the issues at stake, as is Adalbert J. Gail's "Die neun Abschnitte Bhāratavarsas: Eine textgeschichtliche Untersuchung," Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde südasiens und Archiv für indische Philosophie 17 (1973): 5–20. To see all of these cosmological traditions tied together into a philosophical point of view, one might read Alfred Collins's "From Brahma to a Blade of Grass: Towards an Indian Self Psychology," Journal of Indian Philosophy 19 (1991): 143–189. For more local Purāṇas and their cosmologies, see Don Handelman's "Myths of Murugan: Asymmetry and Hierarchy in a South Indian Puranic Cosmology," History of Religions 27 (1987): 133–170; William L. Smith's "The Celestial Village: The Divine Order in Bengali Myth," Temenos 18 (1982): 69–81; and David C. Scott's "Radha in the Erotic Play of the Universe," Asia Journal of Theology 12, no. 2 (1998): 338–357.
No discussion of Purāṇic cosmology would be complete without a discussion of the related medieval tradition of Tantric cosmology. Most scholarly works concentrate on Śaivite (Shaivite) traditions, as do S. Arulsamy's "Spiritual Journey in Shaiva Siddhanta," Journal of Dharma 11, no. 1 (1986): 37–61; Gavin D. Flood's "Shared Realities and Symbolic Forms in Kashmir Shaivism," Numen 36 (1989): 225–247; and Paul E. Muller-Ortega's "Aspects of Jīvanmukti in the Tantric Shaivism of Kashmir," in Living Liberation in Hindu Thought, edited by Andrew O. Fort and Patricia Y. Mumme (Albany, N.Y., 1996), pp. 187–217. Glen Alexander Hayes turns to cosmological Tantra in Bengal in his "Cosmic Substance in the Vaisnava Sahajiyā Traditions of Medieval Bengal," Journal of Vaisnava Studies 5 (1996): 183–196.
The field of "folk" cosmology in Hindu traditions is just beginning to emerge. Earlier works include Stuart H. Blackburn's "Domesticating the Cosmos: History and Structure in a Folktale from India," Journal of Asian Studies 45, no. 3 (1986): 527–543; and Dieter B. Kapp's "The Concept of Yama in the Religion of a South Indian Tribe," Journal of the American Oriental Society 102, no. 3 (1982): 517–521. The familiar theme of body and cosmos comes up in Lise F. Vail's "Founders, Swamis, and Devotees: Becoming Divine in North Karnataka," in Gods of Flesh, Gods of Stone: The Embodiment of Divinity in India, edited by Norman Cutler, Vasudha Narayanan, and Joanne Punzo Waghorne (Chambersburg, Pa., 1985), pp. 123–140; this is also one of the concerns in Hilde Link's "Das Unbegreifbare begreifbar machen: Südindische Baumeister gestalten einen sakralen Platz," Anthropos 88, nos. 1–3 (1993): 194–201.
Science and Cosmology
For more general treatments of science and cosmology, see Anindita Niyogi Balsley's "Cosmology and Hindu Thought," Zygon 25, no. 1 (1990): 47–58. For specific connections between Purāṇic and medieval scientific discourse there are two excellent resources: W. Randolph Kloetzli's "Maps of Time—Mythologies of Descent: Scientific Instruments and the Puranic Cosmograph," History of Religions 25 (1985): 116–147; and David Pingree's "The Purāṇas and Jyotihshāstra: Astronomy," Journal of the American Oriental Society 110 (1990): 274–280. Rory Fonseca's "Constructive Geometry and the Shrī-Cakra Diagram," Religion 16, no. 1 (1986): 33–49, is helpful with mathematical treatments of the cosmos. Also see Chris Minkowski's recent "Astronomers and their Reasons: Working Paper on Jyotishastra," Journal of Indian Philosophy 30, no. 5 (2002): 495–514; and his "The Pandit as Public Intellectual: The Controversy of Virodha or Inconsistency in the Astronomical Sciences," in Axel Michaels, ed., The Pandit: Proceedings of the Conference in Honour of Dr. K. P. Aithal. Heidelberg, 2001, pp. 79-96.
For more contemporary philosophical treatments, see Anindita Niyogi Balsley's "Cosmos and Consciousness: Indian Perspectives," in Science and Religion in Search of Cosmic Purpose, edited by John F. Haught (Washington, D.C., 2000), pp. 58–68; and Karl E. Peters's "Cosmology and the Meaning of Human Existence: Options from Contemporary Physics and Eastern Religions," Zygon 25, no. 1 (1990): 7–122. Jayant Viṣṇu Narlikar's basic scientific writings include The Primeval Universe (Oxford, 1988) and Seven Wonders of the Cosmos (Cambridge, U.K., 1999).
W. Randolph Kloetzli (1987)
Laurie Louise Patton (2005)
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