Hindu Cosmology upholds the idea that creation is timeless, having no beginning in time. Each creation is preceded by dissolution and each dissolution is followed by creation. The whole cosmos exists in two states – the unmanifested or undifferentiated state and the manifested or differentiated state. This has been going on eternally. There are many universes – all follow the same rhythm, creation and dissolution (the systole and diastole of the cosmic heart). According to the Bhagavad Gita this srishti (creation) and pralaya (dissolution) recur at a period of 1,000 mahayuga or 4.32 billion years or 4,320 million years:
“For a thousand ages lasts One day of Brahma, And for a thousand ages one such night;
This knowing, men will know (what is meant by) day and night.
At the day’s dawning all things manifest; Spring forth from the Unmanifest;
According to Rig Veda: “Then was not non-existence nor existence: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water? Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever. Darkness there was at first concealed in darkness this. All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit. Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit. Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent. Transversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it? There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder. Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The devas are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being? He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it, Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not”
About Hindu Cosmology
In India science and religion are not opposed fundamentally, as they often seem to be in the West, but are seen as parts of the same great search for truth and enlightenment that inspired the sages of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Thus, in the Hindu scientific approach, understanding of external reality depends on also understanding the godhead. In all Hindu traditions the Universe is said to precede not only humanity but also the gods. Fundamental to Hindu concepts of time and space is the notion that the external world is a product of the creative play of maya (illusion). Accordingly the world as we know it is not solid and real but illusionary. The universe is in constant flux with many levels of reality; the task of the saint is find release (moksha) from the bonds of time and space.
“After a cycle of universal dissolution, the Supreme Being decides to recreate the cosmos so that we souls can experience worlds of shape and solidity. Very subtle atoms begin to combine, eventually generating a cosmic wind that blows heavier and heavier atoms together. Souls depending on their karma earned in previous world systems, spontaneously draw to themselves atoms that coalesce into an appropriate body.” – The Prashasta Pada.
As in modern physics, Hindu cosmology envisaged the universe as having a cyclical nature. The end of each kalpa brought about by Shiva’s dance is also the beginning of the next. Rebirth follows destruction.
Unlike the West, which lives in a historical world, India is rooted in a timeless universe of eternal return: everything which happens has already done so many times before, though in different guises. Hinduism arose from the discoveries of people who felt that they had gained an insight into the nature of reality through deep meditation and ascetic practices. Science uses a heuristic method that requires objective proof of mathematical theories. Yet both have proposed similar scenarios for the creation of the universe.
The Cosmological Principle of Ancient India
Discovery of ancient Civilizations
With time, we are increasingly aware of the existence of ever older cultures. As recently as the 18th century, it was believed that human culture was something very recent – that the first roots of it are to be found only in the social and scholarly institutions of ancient Greece and Rome. The Europeans of that time thought that prior to ancient Greece there were only uncivilized customs and barbaric art and therefore ideas about nature, and particularly about the Universe, must have been quite primitive, too. Furthermore, it was commonly thought that though, to be sure, the Greeks had laid the foundations for modern science, true scientific research had actually begun only in the Renaissance era.
There was something known about the ancient Egyptian knowledge of nature, but in fact genuine interest into the culture and civilization of Egypt began in Europe only with Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. The Europeans discovered the surprising fact that Egyptian culture, though a few thousands years older than the culture of the ancient Greeks, had apparently been much more advanced scientifically. The first Egyptologists were enchanted by the mathematical proportions of the astronomically oriented pyramids. In the 19th century, ancient Egypt and its culture became fashionable in Europe.
But all developments of ancient Egypt were still considered an exception to the universal uncouthness that was believed to dominate throughout the ancient world.
In the course of time, ever more such exceptions were discovered. Historians digging into documents, but above all archaeologists excavating old settlements, palaces, tombs and shrines, found more and more evidence of great advanced civilizations in the remote past. At first they were civilizations rather close to those of ancient Egypt and Greece: Babylon, Chaldea, Persia. But later on, traces of fairly developed civilizations were found also in the Caucasus, Central Asia, India, China, the Americas, Oceania and the Central Africa. It seemed as if the entire Earth had consisted of such “exceptional” regions where one or another past civilization once used to be.
The development of human culture and civilization seems not to have proceeded by straight lines. Rather there was an advanced civilization somewhere in the world in almost every millennium. It is also evident that every civilization after its efflorescence falls into decay and degeneracy. What do present-day Egyptians have in common with the ancient Egyptian culture? And inhabitants of Polynesia – with the monuments of Easter Island? And the contemporary British – with the master-builders of Stonehenge?
It is not my aim to determine how long some particular culture persisted, or how long humanity fostered some particular ideas concerning the Universe as a whole. With more discoveries, the history of human culture seemed to reach further into the past. I would not like to affirm or reject here any old stories about missing continents and civilizations such as Lemuria and Atlantis. As long as no records are available about attitudes of their inhabitants toward the Cosmos as such, the issue of their existence is of no significance for our considerations.
Culture of Ancient India
The first culture of which we have definite information concerning its cosmological ideas is ancient India, meaning the period of India’s history prior to that of the wars in the south of the Indian Peninsula. That was an epoch of efflorescence of the Hindu spirit when the Indian nation lived peacefully in the northern part of what is now India. This epoch carne to an end as early as about six thousand years before Christ. It is sometimes called the epoch of great Rishis – great teachers of India. There is no consensus among Indologists in which millennium those general beliefs about the Universe arose.
Some scholars place them even before the 9th millennium B.C. We can reproduce the natural environment of this nation as abundant and favorable to people who lived in rather small communities scattered all over the country. The soul mood of ancient Indians was very different from our own. That difference has to be grasped if we are to understand what is today called the Cosmological Principle of Ancient India.
Ancient Indians considered all that is perceived by the physical senses as an illusion or “maya”. They felt it discomforting to have to live within that maya. Instead, they strove toward spiritual reality, which they wanted to grasp and experience, not by conceptual and logical thinking (logic as such did not exist yet!) but through ardent feelings.
It is true that this epoch left no direct written records behind, but it did leave a great oral tradition. The Indians up to the present day, living in the echoes of that culture, inherited traditions richer and stronger than other nations, and the extraordinary collective memory, cultivated by appropriate exercises, preserved many ancient oral works for posterity. Most of those works were written only in post-Christian times. But their content as well as the fact that they are in Sanskrit, a language that has not been spoken for thousands of years, is taken by Indologists as evidence that they go back to ancient times (cf. Radhakrishnan 1951). In any case, the roots of a meditative attitude towards the world, so characteristic for India, had formed very early, thousands of years before the strictly historic era of India began.
A Contemporary formulation of the Ancient Indian Cosmological Principle
According to the oldest Indian traditions, the Universe is understood to be the body of the highest, infinite spiritual being and thus has some of his properties. If we attempt to render this into the language of contemporary science, we arrive at the following formulation:
The Universe is infinite in space and time and is infinitely heterogeneous.
This means also: our Earth is not a unique, exceptional, celestial body. It does not have any favored position in time or in space. Many such “earths” (those oldest cosmological considerations do not refer to any specific kind of celestial bodies) preceded and many will follow our Earth in time. Also, in present time there are many other “earths” of the same significance for the Universe as that of ours. On the other hand, the Earth is not something average either in its location in space or time or in respect to its inner qualities. No average values can be arrived at when differences between objects tend to infinity.
The ancient Indians left some concepts about the structure of the neighborhood of the Earth (e.g. the familiar picture of the Earth resting on a great turtle), but they left no overall system of the Universe as such. In ancient Indian documents nothing can be found that could be called a model of the Universe as a whole. When we grasp the content of their cosmological principle, we can see that it is not incidental. No mathematical model of the Universe involving the Ancient Indian Principle can be constructed even now, since mathematics have not yet developed any tools to deal with the notion of infinite heterogeneity. The development of the newly elaborated theory of fractals tends to this direction, but the heterogeneity that theory is able to deal with is still too limited. Cosmology based on fractal structure of the Universe (cf. e.g. Mandelbrot 1977) is still far from the ancient Indian outlook. An Indian sage from many thousands years ago would say to the contemporary cosmologist: the Universe is much too complicated to be put into those primitive mathematical formulae of yours.
Perhaps further developments in mathematics will make it possible to calculate a model of the Universe concordant with the Cosmological Principle of Ancient India. But at present, without resorting to models and strict calculations, we can imagine a picture, or rather a number of different pictures of such a Universe, infinitely self-different at every point. Everything that is plausible comes to be realized somewhere in it. But still it is Cosmos, not Chaos, and the highest order and beauty govern it.
Of course, this is just one of many historical cosmological principles. It has few adherents nowadays (e.g. in connection with the Anthropic Principle), but its importance in the development of cosmological ideas is considerable. One can at 1east suspect, if not prove, that it influenced the cosmological ideas of some philosophers of ancient Greece. And when Nicolas of Cusa (Nicolaus Krebs 1401-1464 A.D.) revealed his view that the fabric of the world has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere, we cannot be sure if this was a far echo of the Indian Principle or a precursor of the modern, Copernican, mode of thinking about the Universe or, perhaps, both. The comparison of this oldest known cosmological principle with contemporary principles shows major differences but some close similarities as well.
The Science of Hindu Cosmology
The idea that ancient Indian texts have all the knowledge about the Universe is a very popular one. One of the biggest arguments used to lend credence to that idea is how Hindu cosmology matches the current understanding of our Universe. The primary evidence put forth for that argument is the number 4.32 billion years from Vishnu Purana which is quite close to the current estimate of the age of the Earth – 4.5 billion years.
To summarize it, the age of the Universe is equal to 100 years of Brahma. One day of Brahma is 4.32 billion years (just the day. not night). Currently 50 years have elapsed (around 155 trillion years). And the current mahayuga is about 120 million years old. But if you compare the numbers from Hindu cosmology with current estimates from science, it becomes clear how wrong they are. The estimated of the age of the Universe is 13.7 billion years, whereas according to Hindu cosmology it is 155 trillion years. Even if we ignore that number and take the start of a mahayuga to mean the start of the Universe or the birth of Earth, the age of current mahayuga – 120 million years is nowhere close to either the age of the Earth or the Universe. Of all the numbers listed in Vishnu Purana, just one number – 4.32 billion years – comes close to a number given by science.
Hindu apologists latch onto that one number and heartily declare that the ancient texts are in acceptance with science. It doesn’t matter to them that the ages of the Universe and the Earth given by Hindu cosmology totally contradict the values given by science.
That the ultimate cosmic-bits, or basics, must be “physical stuff”, as modern science usually says, is a simple assumption, to some extent based upon an earlier, epistemological assumption that knowledge can only be of individuals, or particulars, at least in the sense that any knowledge-claim is true (or false) in virtue of its application (or not), to, or its being about, some individual, or cluster of them. There may be a sense in which a law is “knowledge”: but always only because it applies ultimately in some way to a certain cluster of possible or actual individuals or particulars.
To isolate knowledge on the basis of this assumption, and in this way, is of course to isolate it usually to sense-organ using perception, or, on occasion, also to what vaguely is called “discursive reasoning” when, as happens of course very rarely amongst scientists, the possibility of a priori knowledge is admitted.
And if, as Hindu Vedanta does, the above is recognized not merely to be an assumption, but also rejected on the grounds that some other approach to knowledge can be advanced which is demonstrably prior, in the sense of, more adequate to disclosure of the nature of reality, and hence of the explanatory basics in question, then there is virtually no problem whatever in doing the switch, and abandoning the model and approach of modern science entirely. “Entirely” as ultimate, that is: for the approach would naturally remain a highly useful operational intermediary. Whilst the methods of modern science may, on this understanding, not give ultimate information, they may well furnish most useful information for the ontological level of the subject-matter of their single manifestation form—that is, for that level at which this subject-matter (that of observable and/or thinkable individuals) is real. An understanding of the cosmos, even of reality, as if it were “substantially physical” or, as we often say “material”, is clearly of great assistance when, as often, we are forced to approach and deal with it as if it were.
Nonetheless, this possibility of substituting the world-approach, or (perhaps better) reality-approach of Hindu Vedanta for that of modern science is part of the reason for the contemporary interest, among a certain significant Western minority, in this wisdom tradition. For it at least offers the prospect of a metaphysically rigorous alternative to one illusion from which many consider themselves long since disabused. I speak of the possibility of a materialist-science interpreting the cosmos such that good sense can be made of, and an adequate programme outlined for, self-development–for, that is, the betterment of persons, and of humanity.
But of course—that there is this alternative is one thing: investigating it is wholly another. And, speaking finally, whether it is a more adequate approach to the nature of the explanatory basics of the cosmos than that of modern science will, as above, be wholly determined only by engaging in those activities on the basis of which the Rsis who advance it claim it to be so. And whilst I will not at this point go into the details of the activities in question, quite as there are in science two general ways of examining truth claims, so are there here—doing the activities in question (dhyana, etc), quite as one might do science to assess it; and accepting as evidence for the suggested truth the fact that certain appropriately revealing consequences follow if one does accept, and live in terms of, these claims, so far as they can be applied to one’s living as principles in this way.
What of course happens these days is this: that the findings of modern science are accepted by most on spec, that is, on grounds of their being advanced by authorities in the field; whereas, the findings of those who claim to present evidence demonstrating the lack of ultimacy about science are not accepted at all. And this is no more than sheer bias in favor of one authority over another; bias, moreover, which does not stop short of dismissing the findings of the latter without in the slightest examining them in ways appropriate at all. No bias could go further—and indeed, none these days does.