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Cosmology - Asia - Buddhist Cosmologies, Chinese Cosmologies, Bibliography

cosmos world cosmic vedic

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) or—more commonly—three 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 nothing—neither being nor non-being, nor even the gods themselves—existed 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, however—and, for the most part, in the subsequent Brahmanas and Aranyakasrita 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 cosmology—indicative of a larger shift in Hindu thought—from 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 developed—like much of the Upanishads—on 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 egg—which, 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 egg—which, 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, and—following a night of Brahma, which is a sustained period of cosmic rest—the 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 sophistication—again, 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.

Cosmology and Astronomy - Babylonian Cosmology, Greek Cosmology, Interregnum, The Copernican Revolution, The Newtonian Revolution, Twentieth-century Cosmology [next] [back] Cosmology - Evolution Of Cosmological Thought, The Expanding Universe, The Big Bang, Implications Of The Big Bang

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