Hinduism and the Universe
How centuries-old texts from the oldest living religion in the world are in agreement with the scientific inquiry on the origins of the universe and concepts of time dilation and cyclicity
The entirety of Cosmos, Carl Sagan’s magnum opus, can be read on the Internet Archive. In Chapter 10, titled “The Edge of Forever”, Sagan talks about the origin of the Universe and relates it to various mythos from across the world. He elucidates on how most cultures focused on a single starting point, where the deity they worship creates the world out of nothing.
That is it — a linear progression from start to finish.
However, Hinduism has the concept of cycles. Cycles spanning billions of years — Brahma creates the universe, Vishnu nurtures and preserves it, and at the end of its lifetime, Shiva destroys it, annihilating it into nothingness, and the cycle starts anew. Like a phoenix rising from its ashes, Shiva’s actions spurn the next cycle of creation.
Every culture has a myth of the world before creation, and of the creation of the world, often by the mating of the gods or the hatching of a cosmic egg. Commonly, the universe is naively imagined to follow human or animal precedent. Here, for example, are five small extracts from such myths, at different levels of sophistication, from the Pacific Basin:
In the very beginning everything was resting in perpetual darkness: night oppressed everything like an impenetrable thicket.
- The Great Father myth of the Aranda people of Central Australia
All was in suspense, all calm, all in silence; all motionless and still; and the expanse of the sky was empty.
- The Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya
Na Arean sat alone in space as a cloud that floats in nothingness. He slept not, for there was no sleep; he hungered not, for as yet there was no hunger. So he remained for a great while, until a thought came to his mind. He said to himself, ‘I will make a thing.’
- A myth from Maiana, Gilbert Islands
First there was the great cosmic egg. Inside the egg was chaos, and floating in chaos was Pan Ku, the Undeveloped, the divine Embryo. And Pan Ku burst out of the egg, four times larger than any man today, with a hammer and chisel in his hand with which he fashioned the world.
- The P’an Ku Myths, China (around third century)
Before heaven and earth had taken form all was vague and amorphous . . . That which was clear and light drifted up to become heaven, while that which was heavy and turbid solidified to become earth. It was very easy for the pure, fine material to come together, but extremely difficult for the heavy, turbid material to solidify. Therefore heaven was completed first and earth assumed shape after. When heaven and earth were joined in emptiness and all was unwrought simplicity, then without having been created things came into being. This was the Great Oneness. All things issued from this Oneness but all became different . . .
- Huai-nan Tzu, China (around first century B.C.)
The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, no doubt by accident, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long, longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still.
There is the deep and appealing notion that the universe is but the dream of the god who, after a hundred Brahma years, dissolves himself into a dreamless sleep. The universe dissolves with him — until, after another Brahma century, he stirs, recomposes himself and begins again to dream the great cosmic dream. Meanwhile, elsewhere, there are an infinite number of other universes, each with its own god dreaming the cosmic dream. These great ideas are tempered by another, perhaps still greater. It is said that men may not be the dreams of the gods, but rather that the gods are the dreams of men.
In India there are many gods, and each god has many manifestations. The Chola bronzes, cast in the eleventh century, include several different incarnations of the god Shiva. The most elegant and sublime of these is a representation of the creation of the universe at the beginning of each cosmic cycle, a motif known as the cosmic dance of Shiva. The god, called in this manifestation Nataraja, the Dance King, has four hands. In the upper right hand is a drum whose sound is the sound of creation. In the upper left hand is a tongue of flame, a reminder that the universe, now newly created, will billions of years from now be utterly destroyed.
These profound and lovely images are, I like to imagine, a kind of premonition of modern astronomical ideas.
The episode was also partly shot in India. He also reiterated the same views in an interview with an Indian diplomat back when the original series was aired.
But the main reason that we oriented this episode of COSMOS towards India is because of that wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology which first of all gives a time-scale for the Earth and the universe — a time-scale which is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years.
As far as I know. It is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale. We want to get across the concept of the right time-scale, and to show that it is not unnatural. In the West, people have the sense that what is natural is for the universe to be a few thousand years old, and that billions is indwelling, and no one can understand it. The Hindu concept is very clear. Here is a great world culture which has always talked about billions of years.
Finally, the many billion year time-scale of Hindu cosmology is not the entire history of the universe, but just the day and night of Brahma, and there is the idea of an infinite cycle of births and deaths and an infinite number of universes, each with its own gods.
There is a statue of the same Nataraja, along with a plaque, at one of the premier scientific institutions of the world, the CERN.
The statue is in itself, mesmerizing, casting an ethereal shadow on the walls of the institute at night as if Shiva has actually descended down from Kailasa.
It celebrates a rare union — Science, and Spirituality.
Shiva is the cosmos — his dance symbolizing the uncountable sub-atomic interactions that make up the pandemonium underlying the appearance of order and logic.
The plaque reads:
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, seeing beyond the unsurpassed rhythm, beauty, power and grace of the Nataraja, once wrote of it “It is the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of.”
More recently, Fritjof Capra explained that “Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter,” and that “For the modern physicists, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter.”
It is indeed as Capra concluded: “Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.”
Spanning 4 Vedas, 18 Puranas, 2 epics — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and umpteen Upanishads, the Hindu mythology is immensely vast. In these books, reside a good portion of human knowledge — morality, war, taxation, law, architecture, Cosmology, Philosophy, Geography.
The origin of the universe, and also the multiverse, is detailed in Linga Purana, dedicated to the destroyer, Lord Shiva, the Mahakaal.
The life of the universe, as noted by Carl Sagan, though billions of solar years, is just one day in the life of Brahma.
“The period of the duration of the Prakrita creation is said to be a day of Brahma. There is a similar period constituting the night. The lord effects creation during day time and dissolution during the night. He has neither a day nor a night (as we understand the terms). The time-duration by day and night is used in a secondary sense.
During the (so-called) day all the Vikrtis — the Visvedevas, the Prajapatis and the sages stay by. During the night all of them are dissolved. They are produced (again) at the end of the night. A day of His constitutes our kalpa, His night too similarly another kalpa. There are fourteen Manus by the time a thousand sets of four yugas come to a close. O brahmins, the Krta yuga consists of four thousand years. Four hundred, three hundred, two hundred and hundred years respectively constitute the period of transition both at the beginning and end of a yuga.”
The text then dwells in further detail about the ages of the Yugas, the transition period between them. It talks about the length of the Yugas, totaling to 4,320,000 human years. One kalpa (day) of Brahma is equal to thousand of these sets, the night thousands more.
“Thus the duration of the four yugas, without the period of junction and transition totals to three million six hundred thousand human years. If Sandhya periods are included, the set of four ages will consist of four million three hundred and twenty thousand years. A little over seventy one sets of four yugas — Krta, Treta, Dvapara and Kali — constitute a manvantara.” The number of human years in a manvantara are thirty crures six million and seven hundred and twenty thousand, O excellent brahmins. The period of a manvantara, according to this Purana, is not more than this.
The number of years in one set of four yugas have been mentioned earlier. O excellent brahmins, a thousand such sets of four yugas constitute a kalpa (of Brahma).
During Brahma’s night the creatures perish; at the end of the night they are created again. There are twenty-eight crores of gods who move in aerial chariots.”
In essence, a full day-night cycle of Brahma, with the day representing creation (or expansion / the Big Bang), and the night representing the destruction (or contraction / the Big Crunch), comes to 2000 sets of 4.32 million years, or about 8.64 billion years.
This is the age of one universe, after which a new one begins.
The concept of time dilation is mentioned in Canto 9 of the Bhagavata Purana/Srimad Bhagavatam.
Kakudmî took his daughter Revatî to Brahmâ’s abode beyond the modes, to ask the Almighty One for a husband for the girl. (30) Because the original teacher of the universe was engaged in enjoying the music of the Gandharvas he had no time for him at all, but as soon as it was over Kakudmî, after offering his obeisances, could submit his desire to him. (31) The all-powerful Lord had to laugh about what he heard and said to him: ‘Alas, oh King, whosoever you had in mind [as a suitable husband for your daughter] has disappeared a long time ago! (32) We do not hear anymore about them nor about their sons, grandsons, descendants or dynasties because [while you were waiting here] a period of three times nine mahâ-yugas has passed!
Kakudmi waited for what would have been minutes or hours in the presence of Brahma, but in the material world, many yugas had passed.
And finally, the multi-layered concept of annihilation and rebirth of the universe is unique to Hinduism.
यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भव- ति भारत ।
अभ्युत्थान- मधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम्- ॥
परित्राणाय- साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम्- ।
धर्मसंस्था- पनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे ॥
The above 4 lines might just be the most memorable from all of Bhagvat Gita.
The essence of the lines is as follows: “Whenever dharma or righteousness is on a decline in this world, and adharma or evil is on the rise, taking over the souls of men, I will descend to the earthly plane, as another of my avatars. For the protection of what is good, and the destruction of what is evil, for the re-establishment of dharma, I will do so in every yuga or era.”
Lord Vishnu is the preserver. He is what nourishes the world. The world was borne of Brahma and handed over to Vishnu who is charged with its upkeep for the length of an entire day in the life of Brahma. His is the world for the “twelve” hours. And it is during this time that he takes on various forms, be it the chimeric Narsimha, the dreaded Kalki, or the charismatic Krishna. He does so to restore the balance, to course correct.
He is the cosmic balance. Indeed, as Kalki, he will put on one last effort to restore harmony and equilibrium, but even that won’t suffice.
As he was handed the universe by Brahma at the break of dawn, he will pass it on to the most terrifyingly mesmerizing aspect of the Trinity, Lord Shiva the Destroyer, when night falls.
During the next 12 hours of what would be Brahma’s night, Mahakaal, will do what you have stated — utterly annihilate everything reducing the universe to nothing but the primordial matter from whence it was born and transferred back to Brahma, who will create a new one again at the beginning of his next day from the remnants of the last one.
The four yugas see the increasing influence of evil, despite being checked by Lord Vishnu time and again. Greed, lust, envy, vanity take over. Man starts to demolish nature for his own pleasure instead of living in harmony with it. Natural calamities like torrents, floods, and droughts become more frequent.
The lifespan of men starts to decrease. Medicinal plants start to disappear.
Even the Vedas, which until Treta, the second yuga, was a single book, needs to be broken down into four at the beginning of the third age, the Dwapar yug.
Imagine a day in your life.
You wake up in the morning, refreshed and brimming with energy. As the day goes by, you get more tired. Your speed slows down. You occasionally try to correct things by taking a bath or having a cold drink. But the respite is momentary. By dusk, you are exhausted. Finally, in the embrace of the dark night, you retire to sleep. During this period, the lethargy of your body slowly dissipates, the accumulated toxins in your system are flushed out, your brain sort of cools down. You wake up the next morning, with the same energy and passion as the day before, and the cycle starts anew.
Similar is the cosmic day. The world is born. It slowly corrupts, despite repeated attempts by Vishnu to correct everything. At the end of Kali Yuga, Kalki cleanses all evil and the yuga-chakra begins again. The human night can be seen as the end of Kali Yuga.
The spiritual master of all the moving and nonmoving living beings, Lord Vishnu, the Supreme Personality and Controller of All, takes birth for the protection of the religion and to put an end to the karma of the saintly souls.
In the village of S’ambhala Lord Kalki will appear in the home of the great soul, the eminent brahmin Vishnuyas’â [‘the glory of Vishnu’]. Mounting His swift horse Devadatta, the Lord of the Universe endowed with His sword, transcendental qualities and eight mystic opulences [siddhis], will subdue the reprobates. With speed traveling the earth on His horse He, unrivaled in His splendor, will slaughter the thieves dressing as kings by the millions.
When all the robbers have been killed, the minds of all the residents of the towns and cities will clear up who came in touch with the breeze carrying the most sacred fragrance of the [with sandalwood paste] decorated body of Lord Vâsudeva. When Vâsudeva, the Supreme Lord, is situated in their hearts in the transcendental form of His goodness, the production of offspring will be abundant.
After the Supreme Lord Kalki, the Lord and Master of Dharma, has incarnated, Satya-yuga will begin and progeny will be created in the mode of goodness . The moment the sun and the moon together with Jupiter [Bhrihaspatî] in the same constellation [of Karkatha or Cancer] enter the lunar mansion of Tishyâ Satya-yuga [Krita] will begin.
However, even this is not definitive. After a thousand such cycles, even the remnants of evil after every cleansing by Kalki would remain. A night’s rest won’t serve the purpose anymore.
This is when Shiva steps in. He is the Nullifier. He becomes Death — the ultimate human liberator, cleansing everything accumulated in one’s lifetime — joy, grief, pain, fatigue.
This is the Tandava, the celestial dance of destruction. But it is not “destruction” in the unwelcome sense. Just the end of a cycle that will weave seamlessly into the beginning of the next. The destruction provides the impetus for the next round of creation. Like the mythical phoenix, it is not annihilation, but renewal.
This is when all evil will truly be wiped from the face of the Earth, the cosmic stopwatch resets, and a new day dawns.
But even this is just the second stage.
There are four types of annihilation mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana — constant, occasional, material, and final.
The constant annihilation occurs, well…constantly. Through the cycle of human birth and death.
At every moment time invisibly transforms the bodies of all created beings and all other manifestations of matter. This process of transformation causes the living entity to undergo the constant annihilation of birth and death.
The occasional annihilation happens during Brahma’s night (the end of the present universe).
During his night Brahmā sleeps, and the three planetary systems meet destruction; this is the naimittika, or occasional, annihilation.
The material annihilation transpires after a hundred years of the Brahma when everything is erased from existence, including the very elements that make up the universe.
When Brahmā’s life span of one hundred years is finished, there occurs the prākṛtika, or total material, annihilation. At that time the seven elements of material nature, beginning with the mahat, and the entire universal egg composed of them are destroyed.
The final annihilation is spiritual, equivalent to the attainment of Nirvana. The ultimate freedom from the chains of the material world.
When a person achieves knowledge of the Absolute, he understands factual reality. He perceives the entire created universe as separate from the Absolute and therefore unreal. That is called the ātyantika, or final, annihilation (liberation).