Cosmology: Asia

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Cosmology: Asia

Hindu cosmologies are among the oldest surviving cosmologies in the world, dating back as far as the Vedic writings of the second millennium b.c.e. The oldest sections of the Vedas are the Samhitas (hymns), which express a relatively simple cosmology consisting of either two (earth and sky, representing male and female, respectively) ormore commonlythree parts (earth, atmosphere, and sky or heaven). There seems to be some indication of an underworld, although this is located sometimes in one of the aforementioned parts of the cosmos and at other times simply "beyond" them. Moreover, in these early Vedic works it is unclear if the gods created the cosmos (and if so, which ones) or if they were created within the cosmos. For example, in one famous account purusha (the "cosmic man") is sacrificed by the gods and his body divided to form the various aspects of the cosmos and the caste distinctions of Vedic society (Rig Veda, book 10, hymn 90). Yet in another prominent cosmogony, the author marvels at how nothingneither being nor non-being, nor even the gods themselvesexisted before the creation of the cosmos, and questions how anyone could know from whence the cosmos arose (Rig Veda, book 10, hymn 129). One of the significant contributions to Hindu cosmology in the Vedic hymns, however, is the notion of rita (roughly, "cosmic order"). Although it is not the focus of any particular hymn, the concept surfaces explicitly and implicitly in a number of Vedic hymns, and indicates an eternal law, moral standard, and underlying truth that applies to the cosmos generally and to human society in particular. In the hymns, howeverand, for the most part, in the subsequent Brahmanas and Aranyakas rita only suggested a ritual connection of sacrifices, devotion, and observance of a basic caste system with aiding the gods in maintaining cosmic order.

The Upanishads, the concluding sections of the Vedas written in the first millennium b.c.e., provide a more systematic and philosophically sophisticated cosmology. Most significant was the emphasis on the concept of Brahman (the ultimate as found in the cosmos as a whole), and its association with Atman (the ultimate as discovered through introspection). This shifted the entire focus of the cosmologyindicative of a larger shift in Hindu thoughtfrom maintaining cosmic order (rita ) to the achievement of liberation (moksha ) from the cycle of reincarnation through identification with the Ultimate (Brahman ). Maintaining cosmic order remains important, although it is understood in the Upanishads primarily in terms of dharma, which refers not only to the descriptive and normative dimensions of the cosmic order itself (as did rita ) but also to that order as it applies to the individual's lot in life. Consistent with the identification of Brahman with Atman, achieving moksha is in large part a matter of understanding and observing the dharma of the cosmos as it applies to oneself. Although the Upanishads mark an important shift in Hindu cosmology, this shift was developedlike much of the Upanishadson the basis of the Vedic hymns. For example, where the hymns distinguished two or three parts to the cosmos, the Upanishads distinguish seven, including a number of higher parts that correspond with achieving moksha. Perhaps the best example of this, however, is in the Upanishadic development of the "cosmic egg" cosmology first introduced in the Brahmana section of the Vedas: when split in two, the eggwhich, significantly, is associated with Brahman formed the earth and sky from its shells, and the mountains, streams, and the like from its insides (Chandogya Upanishad III.xix; see also Shatapatha Brahmana XI, 1, 6).

While the Upanishads mark the end of the Vedas, the cosmologies introduced there continue to be developed in the subsequent texts (for example, the Manava Dharmashastra or Manusmriti [Laws of Manu], the Vishnu Purana, and sections of the Mahabharata ). While these texts differ somewhat in content, they mutually inform what has come to be the prevailing cosmology in the Hindu tradition. This cosmology draws on the Vedic account of the "egg of Brahman " (Brahmanda ), although it develops the account with much greater elaboration. The world created from that eggwhich, again, is identified with Brahman is centered on a mythical Mount Meru, an inverted mountain that not only stands at the center of the world of the living, but also links it to numerous levels of heaven above and still more numerous hells below. The cosmography of the world includes highly figurative descriptions of geometrically oriented mountain ranges separating different lands, concentric seas of unusual liquids (for example, wine or molasses), and series of ring-shaped islands.

Accompanying this cosmography is an equally detailed account of cosmic time, according to which the world (that is, the world of living beings, as opposed to the cosmos as a whole) passes through four ages (yuga ): the first is a golden age, and each age degrades further until the world is destroyed after the first. These four yuga, however, constitute but one day of Brahma, andfollowing a night of Brahma, which is a sustained period of cosmic restthe world is created anew and runs through the four ages once again. This process is often interpreted with respect to the actions of the gods Brahma (the creator, not to be confused with the impersonal Brahman ), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer), which are seen to be three aspects of the world's continual regeneration and renewal. These accounts of time proceed to distinguish periods of time ranging from mere fractions of a second to the span of Brahma's life (numbering in the billions of years).

What is most notable about the development of Hindu cosmology is the extent to which it develops in concert with its social structures. In early Vedic literature, these structures (such as the caste system) are present, but only in their basic contours, just as is the case with Hindu cosmologies. By the time of the Upanishads, however, they have evidently taken on considerably more sophisticationagain, as have the cosmologies. Finally, in the post-Vedic literature, caste distinctions and social obligation have been laid out in considerable detail, mirroring the exacting scholasticism present in the accompanying cosmologies. While the precise relation between cosmologies and social structures is a matter of ongoing debate, the development of Hindu cosmologies provides strong evidence that there is at least an important link between the two.

Buddhist Cosmologies

Buddhists are both interested and uninterested in cosmology. They are uninterested, first, because all of the distinctions that are typically taken to characterize the cosmos are seen as expressions of utmost ignorance with respect to the true nature of things. For Buddhists, there are no stable, unchanging things; rather, all things are in perpetual flux, and it is only through one's ignorance and desire that one takes them to be substantive and distinct. As this account of their lack of interest in cosmology should indicate, however, Buddhists are also very interested in cosmology, because it is not only the problem but also the solution that is cosmological. Not only can a cosmology constructed through "skillful means" (upaya ) illumine the way to overcome ignorance, but overcoming this ignorance is itself adjusting one's understanding of the cosmos.

Thus, Buddhist cosmologies can be, but need not necessarily be, read as objective accounts of the nature of the cosmos; rather, the ultimate aim of these cosmologies is always on the achievement of enlightenment (nirvana), and they must be understood as means to that end. For example, in the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification ), Buddhaghosha (fifth century c.e.) describes the "world" not in detailed spatial and temporal terms but in terms of possible destinations for re-birth: gods, humans, ghosts, and animals, and hell (strangely, the last is a spatial reference, but primarily indicates a realm for tortured souls). Likewise, in the Abhidharmakosha, Vasubandhu (fifth century c.e.) locates a cosmology much like Buddhaghosha's within but one of three spheres (dhatu ): the sphere of desire (kamadhatu ); beyond this is a sphere of pure form (rupadhatu ), and finally a sphere of no-form (arupadhatu ). Despite their differences, these two prominent early cosmologies serve as a roadmap for the path to enlightenment, complex enough to exemplify the key points of Buddhist doctrine, yet simple enough to serve as an accessible means for traveling along that path.

Buddhist cosmology becomes inordinately more complicated, however, with proliferation of worlds and Buddharealms. The concept of multiple worlds is already evident in Theravadan literature, where one Buddha oversees many worlds at one time; however, this concept becomes much more prominent in Mahayana texts, where most of these worlds are associated with particular Buddha-realms (buddhakshetra ). Each buddhakshetra is overseen by its own fully enlightened Buddha, and is seen as pure, impure, or mixed, depending on the degree of desire and ignorance manifested there. Our own world, Saha, is the buddhakshetra of Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha), and is seen alternately as impure or mixed. Significantly, this association of worlds with different Buddhas is what gave rise to Pure Land Buddhism in the Chinese and Japanese contexts: the so-called "Pure Land," Sukhavati, is a pure world overseen by the Buddha Amitayus/Amitabha (Infinite Life/Infinite Light), and all people who are born into this realmsomething attained by faith rather than meritare sure to achieve enlightenment in one lifetime.

It should be noted that, while Buddhist cosmologies are generally intended to embody the Buddhist path to enlightenment, this does not mean that they do not also draw on the cosmologies of other religious traditionsalthough this is always done with some modification. For example, Buddhist cosmography, like other Indian cosmographies, is traditionally centered on Mt. Meru, although the cosmography is given a distinctively Buddhist slant by placing the entire world of the living under the dominion of Mara (death). Likewise, the Buddhist notion of cosmic time borrows from the Hindu account of four yugas after which the world is destroyed and formed again; yet this account is again given a Buddhist slant by ridding the process of any creative deities and ensuring that the unenlightened souls are preserved during these recurrent destructions. This process of borrowing and adapting would continue as Buddhism spread into China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan; what would remain constant, however, is the ultimate aim of Buddhist cosmology: namely, enabling those still suffering in ignorance to ultimately achieve nirvana.

Chinese Cosmologies

Chinese cosmologies are, like Indian and Buddhist ones, manifold in their diversity. Some of the oldest originated from the Shang dynasty (c. 15541045/1040 b.c.e.), and appear initially to account for the general characteristics of the observed world. For example, the cosmos is often understood as consisting of a dome-shaped heaven (represented as a circle) and a square earth; China, the "Middle Kingdom," is situated at its center, with the surrounding world represented as kingdoms situated at each of the four cardinal points and mountains at each of the corners. Allan notes that this cosmology not only resembles a turtle (as many have observed), but more importantly that it resembles the plastron (breastplate) of a turtle; this association is significant because it points to the mythic overlay that accompanied these cosmologies: the plastron was among the most prominent mediums for divination in early Chinese rituals. In this basic cosmology, two of the most prominent features of Chinese cosmologies are already starting to develop: first, the duality between heaven and earth anticipates the later and broader duality between yin and yang ; second, there is an assumed correlation between the cosmos in its entirety and the cosmos as found in any one of its parts (such as the turtle plastron). Yet Shang cosmologies remained for the most part very basic, overseen by the supreme Lord, Shang Di, and controlled by various spiritual beings.

The Zhou dynasty (roughly 1100250 b.c.e.) inaugurated a move from tribal society to feudal society, and the cosmologies of this period reflect that change. For example, the king takes on the title of "Son of heaven," thus situating himself cosmologically as that which links heaven and earth. This move simultaneously afforded him cosmic legitimacy, while also constraining him with the responsibility of ensuring that the order of earth appropriately modeled the order of heaven. This latter responsibility was termed the "Mandate of Heaven," and was taken to be a universal moral law that rulers could either observe (and continue to rule) or neglect (and lose their right to rule). Both duality and correlative thinking remained evident in Zhou cosmology, although the anthropomorphic spiritual powers of the Shang were replaced by moral principle in the Zhou in a way that both validated and restrained rulers even at the highest level, as seen in the Shijing (Classic of Odes ) and the Shujing (Classic of Documents ).

The cosmography of the Zhou also developed that of the Shang in much greater detail. Whereas the Shang understood earth to be square in a broad sense, the Zhou came to see space generally in terms of square units. In order to provide a more detailed description of the earth, squares were divided into nine smaller squares, each of which could be further divided to the desired level of detail; typically, this took the form of a 3 by 3 grid, but there are other variants. The result of such division was that most of Chinese cosmography was understood in terms of nines: nine domains in the Zhou empire, nine branches of the Yellow River, and so on. The most famous example of this division is the well-field system of taxation, whereby eight farmers would each farm one of the peripheral plots on a 3 by 3 grid, with the center square tended by all eight and its yield being given as a tax payment to the government. It is remarkable that even the division of land and labor was taken to be best ordered as a microcosm of the larger cosmic landscape.

What is perhaps most important about Zhou cosmologies, however, is that they set the terms for all subsequent Chinese cosmology. The most prominent features are fourfold: the duality between yin and yang, the five agents (water, fire, earth, wood, and metal), and the sixty-four hexagrams. First, the duality between yin and yang is taken to be characteristic of the cosmos as a whole, embodied in the dualities between dark and light, weak and strong, cold and hot, female and male (respectively); the profound message of this duality, however, is that these apparent opposites are actually fundamentally related, balancing, propagating, and flowing out of one another, for example, the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and Virtue ) and the Yijing (Classic of Change ). The theory of the five agents, in turn, represents the perpetual transformation of things as a characteristic and entirely natural feature of the cosmos; Zhou cosmologists correlated these with virtues, feelings, and arrangements of time, and used them to explain changes in everything from seasons to dynasties (for example, the Shujing, the Xunzi, the Lüshi chunqiu [ Springs and Autumns of Mr. Lü ]). Finally, the sixty-four hexagrams consist of sets of six lines that are each either broken (associated with yin ) or unbroken (associated with yang ); whereas earlier Chinese tradition had used these for the purposes of divination, Zhou cosmologists began to attribute cosmological significance to them by associating them with all of the possible types of change within the cosmos.

The earliest written accounts of Japanese cosmology are found in the Kojiki ("Records of Ancient Matters," 712 c.e.) and the Nihongi ("Chronicles of Japan," 720 c.e.). These texts originate in a time in Japanese history when Buddhism was already a significant influence, and thus serve not only as mythico-historical accounts of the origins and history of the Japanese people but also as the founding documents for the Shinto religion (which had hitherto been transmitted in spoken word and ritual practice). The presence of external influences is already apparent in these documents: the Nihongi, for instance, compares the initial state of the cosmos to an egg that, as heavy and light parts separate, form the heavens and the earth (as seen in many other Asian cosmogonies). The most significant influences, however, appear to stem from Chinese thought: most notably, In and Yô, presented in the Nihongi as the complementary forces underlying the cosmos, arguably stand as Japanese representations of yin and yang.

Despite their apparent external influences, Japanese sources also reveal their distinctiveness, as found most clearly in the epic of Izanagi and Izanami as found in Kojiki. Izanagi ("male-who-invites") and Izanami ("female-who-invites") represent the last generation of a series of spontaneously generated primordial gods, who develop out of one another in increasing complexity and differentiation. Izanagi and Izanami descend from High Heaven (Takamahara ) to the unformed world to create the islands of Japan. These islands, as well as a host of smaller gods (kami ), are brought about primarily as products of the sexual union of Izanagi and Izanami. Ultimately, however, Izanami dies while giving birth to the god of fireshe is scorched to death, producing even more gods in the processand descends to the land of the dead (Yomi-no-kuni ). In his rage Izanagi destroys the god of fire for his matricide, and in his grief he enters into the land of the dead to recover his wife. However, when he finds her and sees her decaying corpse, Izanami becomes enraged and pursues him with a host of demons. When he reaches the path between the land of the living and the land of the dead, Izanagi seals the path with a large stone. Following rituals of purification and grief (through which still more gods were created), Izanagi ascends to High Heaven, leaving the land of the living to the gods he has created. These gods continue to propagate and differentiate, eventually giving birth to the Imperial Family, the Japanese people, and the rest of the creatures and features of Japan.

This basic creation myth establishes the basic tripartite cosmology of the Shinto religion, consisting of High Heaven, the world of the living, and the world of the dead. It is also used to account for a wide variety of features of the cosmos, from such mundane features as the prevalence of fire (attributed to the pulverization of the god of fire for his matricide) to the victory of life over death (as embodied by the victory of Izanagi over Izanami at the path to the land of the dead). Although Japanese cosmology would become increasingly influenced by more pan-Asian religious and philosophical traditionsmost notably, Buddhismthe Shinto cosmogony and cosmology laid out in the Kojiki and the Nihongi continue to influence popular belief in Japan. Indeed, insofar as these accounts serve to express the mythical origins of the Japanese people, they have become all the more influential as the Japanese have sought to develop and emphasize their own distinctive national identity.

Whether explained with respect to yin and yang, the five agents, or the sixty-four hexagrams (texts often drew on all three), Chinese cosmologies ultimately grounded these differentiations in a common source. This is identified in a number of different ways, but most commonly as the Supreme Ultimate (tiaji, which generates yin and yang ), or the Dao itself (which is prior even to the taiji ). The primary point of Chinese cosmology is that, while the cosmos embodies a wide variety of oppositions, changes, and transformations, these are ultimately the natural expressions of an underlying cosmic balance and harmony. While subsequent Chinese would alter the precise nature of the grounding and differentiation of the cosmos, both the terms laid out in the Zhou and its emphasis on cosmic balance and harmony would remain landmarks of Chinese cosmology.

If the Zhou introduced the main tenets of Chinese cosmology, it was the Han (202 b.c.e.220 c.e.) who brought these tenets together and systematized them. For example, it was during the Han that the great commentaries on the Yijing and the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals ) were written. Characteristic of this systematization is the heightened role of correlative thinking, which takes on a detailed, precise, and often even numerical character. Perhaps the most prominent example of Han cosmology is that of Dong Zhongshu (c. 195c. 105 b.c.e.), as found in his Chunqiu fanlu (Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals ). Whereas the Yijing had related all things on a general level, Dong related them in exact detail: every thing or event can be seen as the direct result of other things and events, resulting in a highly complicated but also highly ordered cosmos. More importantly, this order of the cosmos as a whole is replicated at every level of existence, such that the human body, social relations, and imperial governance are all seen to be perfect microcosms of the larger cosmos. Dong's interest in the Chunqiu fanlu thus arises from his desire to use past records of interaction to aid present decisions in better modeling the balance and harmony of the cosmos.

Yet for all of their systematization and rigor, Han cosmologies proved too rigid for subsequent dynasties. Scientific advances compromised the perfect order asserted by Han cosmologists, persistent political upheavals rendered many of their political associations irrelevant, and the introduction of Buddhism into China shifted philosophical interest away from cosmology and toward metaphysics. In the Song dynasty (9601279 c.e.), which witnessed a revival of interest in classical Chinese sources amid the rise of Neo-Confucianism, many of the terms and concepts informing Chinese cosmology were revivedfor example, Zhou Dunyi's Taijitu shuo (Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate ) and Shao Yong's Huangji jingshi shu (Book of the Supreme Ultimate Ordering the World ). In both the Song and the Ming (13681644 c.e.) dynasties, these concepts were often reworked with remarkable ingenuitythe most prominent example of this is Zhu Xi's (11301200 c.e.) reinterpretation of the cosmos in terms of li (principle) and qi (material form)although it must be noted that Neo-Confucian interest, following the lead of Neo-Daoism and Buddhism, was decidedly more metaphysical than cosmological. Ultimately, not even this resurgence of interest succeeded in stemming the tide of increasing cosmological skepticism in Chinese thought.

In the Qing dynasty (16441912), this skepticism reached its height. Seventeenth-century China experienced a marked increase of interest and renaissance in mathematics, astronomy, and geography, due in part to the introduction of Western science by means of the Jesuits. However, these new studies ran counter to the Chinese traditions of numerology, correlation of the orders of heaven and earth, and geometric cosmogony, thus calling these traditions into serious question. Such critique was far from unprecedented (for example, Wang Chong [c. 27c. 100 c.e.], Ouyang Xiu [10071072 c.e.]), but it is only in the late Ming and Qing dynasties that scientific development had enough momentum to seriously call into question such long-standing Chinese traditions (for example, Gu Yenwu [16131682 c.e.], Wang Fuzhi [16191692 c.e.]). According to John Henderson, this shift was so significant as to inaugurate something of an "anti-cosmology"a cosmology that, in contrast to the traditional Chinese approach via correlative thinking about an ordered cosmos, took irregularity and nonuniformity to be defining characteristics of the cosmos (for example, Wang Tingxiang [14741544 c.e.]). Henderson goes on to argue that it was ultimately this distrust of correlative thinking in cosmology that lead to a similar distrust of scientific models in China, thus effectively cutting it off from the broader scientific revolution and global cosmological conversation.

See also Calendar ; Cosmology: Cosmology and Astronomy ; Time: China ; Time: India .


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Robert Smid

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